By Carolyn Thompson
Niagara Gazette — Visitors to Niagara Falls may soon find themselves zip-lining in the Niagara Gorge, biking along the rushing river and staying in a new hotel room, all after being drawn to town by fresh advertising. They might even drive past a new factory in this city swollen then shriveled by industry.
Could it be a second honeymoon for the former Honeymoon Capital of the World?
A mini-commercial building boom, a series of headline-grabbing initiatives and a cash windfall with the settlement of a dispute with the Seneca Indian Nation seem to point to better days for this careworn city next to one of the world's great natural attractions — even if it remains tempered by the urban anchors of population loss and blight.
"The thing that makes us different, and it gives me hope as mayor of the city of Niagara Falls, is that by comparison to other places, we have way more assets to try to revitalize the city," Mayor Paul Dyster said this week. "It should be easier here because we have that great natural resource."
It has been anything but easy for the city since the hydropower-fueled industrial boom that pumped the population as high as 106,000 in the early 1960s began its decline, shedding jobs by the thousands. Census estimates put the population at a troubling 49,722 today.
So as the tourism side works to build a brand and attract free-spending visitors from around the world, there are parallel efforts to put permanent residents into a bloated supply of vacant housing by improving roads and lighting and offering amenities like affordable artist studios. Recently announced plans to move part of a riverfront parkway will reconnect neighborhoods with the water, Dyster said.
"It's trying to show off our quality of life in the city and convince people that this is a good place to come and live," said the mayor, who listed the housing overstock, much of it old and shabby, as the city's biggest challenge.
About 14 percent of the city's buildings are vacant. At the same time, 18 percent of families live in poverty, compared to 11 percent statewide, according to a 2012 profile by the state comptroller's office. The median household income was $31,452 in 2010, below the $37,600 median for all cities and the state median of $55,600.
"You have to try to overcome the blight with coolness," Dyster said.
An innovative program in April chose its first five "urban pioneers," recent college graduates who have committed to live in the city for two years in exchange for financial help paying off student debt.
The efforts dovetail with a commitment to tourism that has helped ignite investment near the state park, which attracts 8 million visitors annually. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012 pledged $1 billion to the economic development of Western New York, a regional council put tourism in the top three industries in which to invest.
A half dozen projects representing $100 million in investments are in front of Christopher Schoepflin, president of the USA Niagara Development Corp., including plans to build or upgrade several hotels.
"Investors, certain developers that maybe five years ago weren't responding to requests for proposals, weren't talking to us or weren't buying properties are doing all of the above right now," he said. "So I think that has signaled the next phase and the transition from beginning of a redevelopment to perhaps the middle of one."
There have been less conventional efforts to attract attention, too. Last year, city leaders made an exception to strict no-stunting policies to let daredevil Nik Wallenda walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls on national television.
A year earlier, the city celebrated the state's first same-sex marriage with a much-publicized midnight ceremony and rolled out the welcome mat for other same-sex couples.
"I've had couples that got married last year who are making plans for family vacations," said Shanie McCowen, who two years ago began a wedding planning business in the city catering to same-sex couples. Last year, she booked 40 weddings.
The city hasn't given up on industry. Dyster points to two environmentally friendly factories: the $455 million Greenpac paper mill set to come on line this month and JBI Inc., which has made 480,000 gallons of fuel from recycled waste plastic since 2011.
Dyster calls them the opposite of the type of industry that led to the environmental disaster at Love Canal that the city became synonymous with in the 1970s.
"You're taking waste and turning it into something useful instead of leaving it behind to bubble up in backyards," he said.
The promotion of Niagara Falls got a boost last month with Cuomo's settlement of a contract dispute with the Seneca Indian Nation that had stalled $89 million in revenue-sharing payments to the city from the tribe's Niagara Falls casino. Along with millions targeted for schools, infrastructure and a city hospital, more than $6 million of that had been earmarked for crucial marketing.
The removal of the Robert Moses Parkway from along the Niagara Gorge is expected to make room for new hiking and bicycling trails as well as horseback riding, zip-lining, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
"The Niagara Falls today and for a hundred years has been more of a place where you went to see," Schoepflin said. "We're trying to convert that to a place that you experience, that you do."
Few urban areas can offer that, he said.
"I really do feel the worst is behind us," said John Percy, president of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. "I think all the planets have aligned."