By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council has put out its list of priority projects for 2012, but one major project in Niagara Falls was conspicuously absent.
The Niagara Experience Center - a project that has been in various phases of development for years - was not mentioned anywhere in the council's 2012 progress report.
That's because city officials did not submit the experience center project to the council. Instead stakeholders made a tactical decision to submit less expensive projects with more attainable goals, Mayor Paul Dyster said.
"We felt that the projects that were being picked were shovel-ready projects," Dyster said.
The mayor said enthusiasm for the experience center is still very much alive, but the city didn't feel it would be wise to submit it as a contender for this round of consolidated funding applications.
"We tried to keep our ask in line with projects that we thought the money would be available for," Dyster said.
Those projects included a downtown stabilization program and the revamping of a recycling operation that will put energy back to the grid. Both were listed as a priority projects by the council and, if ultimately approved, could bring up to $2 million in state funding into the city.
Dyster's administration and the experience center's board of directors hope to be able to find funding from multiple sources to make the experience center a reality, he said.
"When we get the experience center over the finish line it's going to be the result of an effort on all levels," Dyster said.
Experience Center supporters have been trying to find funding for the project for more than a decade. City officials had hoped Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement of a pledge of $1 billion to the Western New York region during last year's state of the state address would be a source of new life for the project.
The estimated cost of the entire project is between $80 million and $90 million. Last year, the city and the center's board of directors submitted a proposal requesting $5 million to help get the project off the ground as part of the newly formed regional council's first round of awarded funding. The experience center was not one of the funded projects, despite high marks for the concept from the council.
City Planner Tom DeSantis, a member of the experience center's board of directors, said an initial investment in the center could be used to leverage other funds.
"Last year, we thought the $5 million was a fairly reasonable ask," DeSantis said.
DeSantis said that with the city facing a fiscal crisis and a weak economy at the state and national levels experience center stakeholders decided it was not the right time to be pushing such an extensive project.
"Trying to push such a large project to the forefront wasn't a good idea," Desantis said.
The board is waiting on the results of a plan being pieced together by the global consulting firm, McKinsey and Company Inc., which is meant to guide Empire State Development as they distribute the $1 billion promised to the Western New York region by Cuomo. Officials have said that they expect the plan to suggest Niagara Falls can be an economic driver for the region through the expansion of the tourism industry.
"We believe that the current study being done by McKinsey will really show that a focus on tourism is the best regional plan going forward," DeSantis said.
Last year, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy visited Niagara Falls assuring city officials that the governor's administration was fond of the experience center idea and that officials should continue to seek funding from the state.
“I would encourage anyone not getting funded to go back and just keep re-applying and pushing," Duffy said last December. "It’s a virtual impossibility to fund every great project the first time around. There’s just not enough money. But, by not getting the nod the first time in no way should be considered a negative or should anyway infer a lack of support. There’s only so much money to go around.”
Chris Schoepflin, the president of the state-run USA Niagara, also sits on the board of directors for the center. He said he agrees with Dyster and feels the project will need multiple funding sources to get off the ground.
"The funding will need to come from a variety of places," Schoepflin said.
Schoepflin said tourism will remain a priority for the regional council.
"In my opinion, the experience center remains a viable, unique, authentic concept for Niagara Falls and the entire region," Schoepflin said.
Local historian and author Paul Gromosiak sat on the board of directors for the experience center until stepping down two years ago. Though the project has amounted only to plans and artists' renderings since it was dreamed up in the late 1990's, he feels it still could be a huge win for the region.
"It would provide a truly world class compliment to the Falls," Gromosiak said.
Gromosiak understands that the $5 million - which would only pay for the planning stages of the project - isn't easy to come by, particularly in the current economic climate. But he insists the investment would have a much greater return than other projects because exhibits in the center would spur people to go to other historic sites in the region.
"My wish was for people to leave the experience center and do just that," Gromosiak said. "Experience history."