Niagara Gazette

October 8, 2012

HIGGS: Norma the cheerleader mixes the ingredients

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Roger Spurback and I were invited to take part in the recent Urban Land Institute Advisory Panel Sessions centered on the “Reuse of the Balance of the Former Rainbow Centre Mall.” USA Niagara took the lead in organizing this week-long analysis with the additional sponsorship of National Grid and the cooperation of the City of Niagara Falls and Niagara County Community College.

The first event was an informal reception to meet the volunteer members of the Urban Land Institute who made up the panel. Their role was to visit the city, its landmarks, learn its pitfalls and meet some of the stakeholders to “pick their brains” if you will about what they feel might be a successful reuse of the former mall and come up with a plan and some recommendations. I was a bit disappointed to notice there were not enough people from the neighborhoods who make up the ordinary citizens but was impressed with the overall plans and certainly with the panel members themselves who welcomed Roger and me and were anxious to hear our ideas.

So, in lieu of the lack of ideas from the ordinary citizen, I included them in my conversations during the time I had to prepare for my interview. Taking into account the seasonal aspect of our tourism even though I feel great progress has been made to extend it, there are still 12 months in a year and a certain amount of participation is needed from the local resident to fill this void. Certainly the culinary institute has concentrated on this aspect by offering food and beverage outlets open to the public (first class, I might add) which not only provide another choice for us but offer a training ground for the students as well.

With that in mind I presented my own offerings and some that I gleaned from friends during my interview with two members of the panel and another stakeholder. My impression is they really listened to us and drew us out to “say it like it is” which is important to have the freedom as too many times ideas are only what others may want to hear. The panel was made up of professionals in the real estate market, the construction industry, the architect profession and some were former government leaders, and they took their responsibility seriously as they asked pertinent questions and made careful notes during our time with them both informally and at the interview. The other stakeholders I asked had the same opinion of their experience.

At the end of the week, we were invited to attend the final presentation of their work. Again, it was conducted in a professional manner, moving along in a smooth orderly fashion and included all the necessary “ingredients” to make us feel they had a good handle on our problem and were willing and able to help our community solve it. Maybe it was because the presentation was held in the culinary institute auditorium, which houses a full kitchen at its center making it a place to “combine, stir together and serve” a well-thought out “menu” of where we should go from here.

The panel was asked to present some potential development ideas utilizing the remaining square feet in the former mall. Some of the “ingredients” were our assets: the Falls themselves, our other natural resources and parks, our history, education and health care advantages, our sports and leisure facilities. An important part of this analysis was the fact that our customer base and our marketing ability to serve 755,000 people is within a limited driving distance of thirty minutes. We have to start thinking positive about these assets ourselves and quit running our city down. My friend Domenick says we need “cheerleaders” if we ever expect to gain our rightful place in the equation. Well, here I am. Rah! Rah!

Some ideas considered were retail, specialty foods and culinary, drinking places, music and books, sporting goods, fitness and spa/salon services. Potential customers would be visitors — day trippers and overnighters and residents.

The panel’s thoughts for the first floor (74,500 sq.ft. +/-) was a “destination anchor, a lower level highlighting food, art and recreation”. Some ideas tossed out were a fresh food market (very popular in many urban destinations), maybe a commercial kitchen with communal tables or even a small grocery store. A small bowling alley could be a part of the recreation aspect with some retail touching on hiking and fishing and the like along with information on other tourism experiences. How about a four-screen theatre? Potential could be Niagara-area themed movies during the daytime and first- and second-run movies in the evening. Broadcast opportunities and a place for storytelling could be a part of this space and maybe a night club.

The second floor (same size) could be an educational experience with some form of exercise and fitness offering. Some opportunities mentioned were offering an extended hospitality curriculum, film and communication education and art education. This would be something to bring more people downtown and add youth. I love watching the students hanging out around the new culinary institute. A fitness center backed by area hotels and open to residents and a spa for tired tourists was also mentioned. This brings student, locals and employee population into the building.

As usual I have used up my words so I will finish my cheerleading next week.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.