By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS —
The Aquarium of Niagara and roughly 22 acres of property surrounding it off north Main Street are now officially eligible to receive assistance from a state-run agency charged with overseeing development in the downtown area.
During a meeting Tuesday, the board of directors for the USA Niagara Development Corp. agreed to support an expansion of the agency’s boundary to include the aquarium and several nearby parcels in what the city’s 2009 master plan describes as a proposed “cultural district.”
The boundary expansion does not guarantee additional dollars for planned aquarium upgrades or improvements, but the attraction’s Director of Development Gay Molnar said simply having the ability to tell donors about its connection to USA Niagara will help in raising funds for future capital projects.
“What this means is the Aquarium would be able to capitalize on available economic development assistance and programs that would help the attraction with renovation and expansion projects that have been on hold for several years,” Molnar said. “This is the first step toward the Aquarium’s future, as well as the future of the city and region.”
Former Gov. George Pataki formed USA Niagara in 2001 in an effort to stimulate economic development in the downtown area. The aquarium sat just outside the boundaries of the agency’s original development district. The newly expanded area also includes the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, city owned DeFranco Park and several residential and commercial properties. USA Niagara officials said the expansion would allow the agency to not only offer help to the aquarium, but preserve “opportunities” for future development along the Niagara Gorge off Third and Whirlpool streets north of Main Street. They noted that expanding the zone does not mean any additional funding for the agency’s capital budget or for specific projects the agency may consider supporting. They also noted that the new boundary line does not commit any specific financial assistance from USA Niagara to the aquarium.
USA Niagara President Chris Schoepflin said his agency has not dealt with a not-for-profit on the aquarium’s level before because no such entity existed inside the agency’s old boundary. He indicated that agency staff will be able to offer additional expertise and resources to the aquarium and may assist in fundraising efforts in the future.
“The boundary expansion passed today will not only help with efforts for the aquarium, but will also enhance the city’s capacity to create a cultural district as described in its comprehensive plan,” Schoepflin said.
Boundary expansion has been debated and researched for several weeks. Earlier this week, the topic took on political undertones as a pair of Republican state lawmakers who have been pressing for months for its approval expressed frustration when the city’s Democratic mayor held a press conference Monday to publicly announce his support for the proposal. Before and after Tuesday’s board vote, all parties involved were talking as if they were ready to put any ill feelings behind them.
State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Niagara Falls, who joined state Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, in pushing for the expansion, said he no longer cared who said what or did what leading up to the vote and that it was time to focus on more important issues like making sure the aquarium gets whatever help it needs to offer visitors more to see and do in the Falls area. Grisanti said he’s hoping the expanded boundary will help the aquarium help him accomplish his goal to “steal business from southern Ontario.”
“I’m tired of seeing those ads for Marineland and a roller coaster ride with people going up and down,” Grisanti said, referring to the popular attraction just across the border in Canada. “I’m thinking to myself you’ve got four acres of land here, there’s got to be something that can be done so you can advertise the Niagara Falls aquarium and kind of get out of the shadows of Marineland.”
Ceretto agreed, saying all parties had common interests when it came to supporting the expansion — to strengthen the aquarium and its offerings and promote development that may lead to job creation downtown.
“I foresee a lot of good, positive projects coming forward,” Ceretto said.
Both Grisanti and Ceretto earlier this year supported state legislation that would have expanded USA Niagara’s reach to the entire city. Mayor Paul Dyster and some USA Niagara board members opposed that plan, saying without additional revenue from the state, the agency would not be able to effectively serve such a large area. On Monday, Dyster called a press conference to publicly announce his support for the aquarium expansion plan. Grisanti and Ceretto were not invited.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Dyster credited Grisanti and Ceretto for their work in moving the expansion forward and said it represents an opportunity for all parties to develop plans for improving the area where the aquarium is located.
“I think this story has a very happy ending,” he said.
Former state Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who attended the meeting in his new capacity as regional president for the Empire State Development Corp., agreed.
“Not everybody was entirely on the same page originally,” Hoyt said. “We’re here today all on the same page.”