By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — It happened so long ago now that I had to go back into the archives to jog my memory.
It was way back in 2002 when former Gov. George Pataki announced the state’s decision to give a $500,000 grant to supporters of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, a then-fledgling group that only a year earlier had secured the rights to the former Niagara Falls High School building, a structure some locals fondly call “The Grand Lady.”
The building is a community institution. It is also a valuable piece of the city’s architectural history.
Built in the Classic Revival Style in 1923-24, it replaced an old school building that had been destroyed by fire.
It housed thousands of Falls high school graduates in the years since, which is one of the reasons why community members rallied to its cause when school district officials were considering a plan to sell it to a private developer who planned to demolish it.
Enter the Niagara Falls High School Preservation Task Force. The entity held several public meetings to solicit community input on what, if anything, could be done to preserve the building. In 1999, the city’s planning board gave the group a chance to develop a “viable” business plan for the site. And find one they did.
A new group — Save Our School — eventually led to the formation of Save Our Sites, Inc., a nonprofit charged with carrying out the preservation plan.
In December 2000, the Preservation League of New York stepped in to offer some assistance, designating the building as one of its “Seven to Save.” A little more than a year later, the city of Niagara Falls, led then by former Mayor Irene Elia, formally offered to accept responsibility for the property should SOS fail.
By the spring of 2001, the Niagara Falls School District had discontinued its plans to sell, having negotiated a new deal to allow the building to be transferred to SOS for a single dollar.
By that time, supporters of the building had developed a clear plan for its reuse: The city’s first — and to this date only — arts and cultural center.
When Pataki stepped up, the building was in desperate need of some serious repairs. The state’s generous gift helped make that happen, and more.
Today, the resurrection of the old high school as the NACC is one of the city’s great recent success stories. It is the exact opposite of the sort of thing that tends to happen in this downtrodden town. When faced with the possibility of losing a valuable local resource, regular people got together, stood up and stopped it from happening.
They loved “The Grand Lady” too much to let her go.
For years now, city residents and their kids have been enjoying all that the NACC has to offer — artwork created by local artists, music performed by local musicians, dance and theatrical pieces put on by local performers. In a city sorely lacking in family friendly offerings, the NACC has done its part to help fill the void.
And, yes, each year the organization holds the Art of Beer, an event that serves as one of its primary fundraisers.
Some people — including a pair of city lawmakers — are now questioning the use of city funds tied to the event, suggesting it poses a serious conflict given that Mayor Paul Dyster — whose family owns a beer-making business — has been involved since its inception.
Beyond that, they say, the NACC hasn’t quite been pulling its own weight, relying instead on city taxpayers to pick up the tab for, as Councilman Sam Fruscione so put it, “boozy parties,” among other things.
There’s one thing I’ve learned having covered the ups and downs of the former Niagara Falls High School from the beginning — there are a lot of residents willing to fight for it.
They saved it from a wrecking ball once and convinced a governor to invest $500,000 in state money to better preserve it for years to come.
Thanks to them, the old Niagara Falls High School still stands, as classic and classy as ever. It sits on a strong foundation, built by local people who understand the value of hard work, commitment to community, the spirit of cooperation and volunteerism - all things needed to make desperate places like Niagara Falls just that little bit better.
“The Grand Lady.”
She’s one tough, Niagara Falls dame — a real testament to the old saying “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”Contact City Editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250