NIAGARA FALLS, NY- In recent years several new hotels have gone up in downtown Niagara Falls.
Clean, comfortable, mid-market, and family affordable.
But the owner of the Sheraton, Michael DiCienzo, has something quite different in mind
“We sure do," said DiCienzo, in speaking WGRZ-TV about his $70 million dollar plan to add six additional floors, with 200 oversized four-star suites on top of his existing hotel, and to construct a new indoor water park on a parcel behind the hotel, which is located at Third and Old Falls Street.
“There’s a huge opportunity to drive business into the market place in the form of an amenity and an attraction," DiCienzo said.
According to DiCienzo, the spate of new mid-priced hotels are fine for providing accommodations for summer tourists during the height of the season. But they don’t offer upscale amenities, as well as a destination such as a water park, to bring visitors to Niagara Falls year round as his proposal would.
DiCienzo and his family operate six successful hotels right across the border in Niagara Falls Ontario, including one with an attached indoor water park, as well as the Days Inn on the American side of the border near the Rainbow Bridge.
The family once operated several hotels in Niagara Falls NY, but left, according to DiCienzo, amid a discouraging business and political climate in the 1990s, before deciding to return and re-invest on the American side within the past decade when prospects improved.
Will This Actually Be Built?
Niagara Falls, New York has had its share of big ticket projects proposed over the years which have failed to come to pass.
“We’re a company with a proven track record of being able to mean what we say, and do what we say we will,” DiCienzo insisted.
However, DiCienzo concedes his plan is only likely to proceed to fruition with the assistance of the State of New York, and its myriad of economic development programs.
“We really want this to happen, but we're looking for some assistance like other developers are getting,” he said. “Generally they provide assistance in the neighborhood of ten to 20 percent of the project. That's been pretty much typically what they have done in the past with other developers."
Feeling "Rebuffed" by the State.
So far, according to DiCienzo, he has been rebuffed by the state.
“The state is saying it can’t provide assistance because our project would be competing with a state assisted property nearby,” he said.
DiCienzo was referring to Wonderfalls, a proposal by Uniland Development and Delaware North to convert what remains of the vacant Rainbow Mall into a resort hotel with a water park. The project was announced in by Gov. Andrew Cuomo three years ago, but has thus far failed to materialize.
“What the state is telling us so far makes no sense on several counts,” insisted DiCienzo. “First of all, water parks work better when there are several clustered together in proximity to each other….there are five in the Catskill region. And secondly, the state’s invested in eight or ten hotel projects that compete with each other, so they should be able to invest in more than one water park and one attraction. Besides that, we’re ready to go, shovel ready, and there’s no indication Wonderfalls-- three years after being announced-- is anything more than a concept right now, which might not ever be built.”
Claim of Politics at Play.
Not lost on DiCienzo, however, is a similarity between developers like Uniland and Delaware North (whom he lost out to in bidding to re-develop the old mall) and Mark Hamister who was given preferred developer status to build a hotel right across the street from the proposed Wonderfalls Resort.
The principles of those companies have donated heavily to the campaign of Gov. Cuomo, and DiCienzo has not.
“That's probably the reason, in part why we are in this predicament,” said DiCienzo. “But we should put everything aside and look at what is right for the market and the people in the market."
In a statement to the Niagara Gazette, a spokesperson for Empire State Development disputed DiCienzo, noting that the state invested millions in the hotel, by assisting its prior owner to renovate it before DiCienzo purchased it in a tax foreclosure auction in 2011.
As well, DiCienzo has received government assistance in another endeavor, The Rainforest Café, developed in what had been a vacant ballroom in the Sheraton.
The 14,000-square-foot restaurant, which seats 238 in the dining room and another 60 on its patio on Old Falls Street, was built at a cost of $3.5 million.
However, only $150,000 (less than 5% of cost) came from The Niagara Falls City Development Corp., the city’s banking arm that gives loans and grants to businesses promising to create jobs.
The restaurant employs 100 workers.
DiCienzo also lured a TGI Friday’s and a Starbucks to fill retail space on the ground floor of the hotel to serve tourists as they walk along Old Falls Street.
“We’ve filled our storefront spaces,” said DiCienzo. “Now we’re looking to invest in more.”