By Rick Forgionefirstname.lastname@example.org
NIAGARA FALLS — Niagara Falls City Administrator Bill Bradberry can talk for hours about Niagara Falls’ downtown areas and how they can become more attractive to tourists.
But he’d rather take a drive and show you personally.
“This is a trip I take several times a day,” Bradberry said during a recent tour of the city. “I think I’m becoming a little obsessed.”
As the tourism season winds down with the Labor Day weekend, Bradberry believes the city did a better job attracting visitors and extending their stay — but there’s a lot to improve upon for next year.
“We’re still in the infancy stages of changing from a heavy industry city to a tourism city,” Bradberry said. “But we need to start acting like a major tourist destination.”
Bradberry’s daily tour of the downtown area usually starts along Third Street.
Two years removed from the state’s $3.7 million streetscape project, the area continues to struggle with its identity. The stretch between Main to Niagara Street is blossoming into a solid entertainment district, especially for nightlife enthusiasts.
The bad news, Bradberry points out, is there’s not enough resources to keep the area clean after those “wild Saturday nights.”
“We’ve made some mistakes, like not figuring out who’s going to maintain what we have here,” Bradberry said while driving past hotspots such as Cafe Etc., the Wine on Third bar and The Shadow Martini Bar. “The amount of trash that is left on the street Sunday morning is unacceptable. Picking up the trash is all part of a bigger puzzle. We need to maximize the visual impact we have on visitors and provide a clean, healthy and safe environment.”
Continuing south on Third, he makes a brief stop in front of the Conference Center Niagara Falls and points to the Castellani Art Museum at the Falls located inside. He uses it as an example of how even small changes can have a big impact.
“I asked that the museum’s lights be left on during the night so people walking by can come and see what’s inside,” Bradberry said. “It becomes an attraction even when it’s not open.”
His smile quickly turns into a frown as he passes a bright yellow awning attached to the building at 256 Third St.
“It just looks tacky,” he said.
City officials are hoping not to duplicate that type of appearance with the newly reconstructed stretch of Old Falls Street, also known as the East Pedestrian Mall. The recent $3.2 million state investment — using a share of casino revenue — polished up the block between Third and First streets with new sidewalks, lamp posts, landscaping and a cobblestone road.
A month after the ribbon was cut, however, the stretch hasn’t exactly attracted crowds of people yet. During the lunch-time tour on Thursday, only a handful were walking through the pedestrian mall.
“I remember when this street was so vibrant — it wasn’t uncommon to have tens of thousands of people walking around on any given day,” Bradberry said, shaking his head. “Things have changed obviously.”
Still, even the most pessimistic of observers would admit the reconstruction project will benefit the downtown area. If managed correctly — Joseph Anderson maintains exclusive vendor rights for the East Pedestrian Mall — the street will eventually relive its glory years, Bradberry believes. But first, he’s hoping Anderson and the city can agree to a set of regulations that will maximize Old Falls Street’s beauty.
“We need to establish a set of design standards,” Bradberry said, pointing to a yellow hut near the street’s entrance that is blocking a portion of Starbucks Coffee. “We need to be aware of things like that. I am hoping this time around we learn from our past mistakes.”
Another state project that Bradberry feels could use some upgrades is the traffic roundabout at the corner of Rainbow Boulevard and First Street. While he likes the addition, he feels something other than a tree could have been installed as the roundabout’s centerpiece.
“Why not put a decorative fountain there and make it a landmark,” he said. “It’s all about giving visitors more to see while they’re here.”
The city’s own ‘Berlin Wall’
One thing Bradberry wishes residents and tourists could see less of is the near-vacant Rainbow Centre Mall which, along with the old Wintergarden facility, splits up the East and West pedestrian mall walkthroughs.
“I refer to it as our Berlin Wall,” Bradberry said, forcing a laugh. “It blocks people’s view on either side of it. Visitors have no idea the assets we have on the other side.”
If Bradberry had his way, he’d have the mall knocked down and replaced by some type of development that would feature indoor activities, but also provide a public walkthrough to reconnect the two pedestrian malls and the entrance to the Niagara Falls State Park.
In the meantime, he laments that the mall’s owners, Cordish Development, need to do a better job making the property more attractive. He noted areas where old, damaged garbage cans are being used to collect trash and broken windows are replaced with plywood.
Bradberry wasn’t just picking on Cordish. The vacant Turtle building owned by Niagara Falls Redevelopment has become a “nesting place for pigeons”; unnecessary clutter in the form of wooden crates sit outside Anderson’s Family Fun Center; and portions of Frank Parlato’s One Niagara Building remains unsightly, including mounds of dirt at the building’s west side and weeds growing through the cracks in the sidewalks, which is Bradberry’s personal pet-peeve.
“Things like this limit our potential,” he said. “We’ve got some major issues dealing with cleanliness to address.”
As visitors exit Niagara Falls State Park along Prospect Street they’re treated to blooming flowers, clean sidewalks and precise signage.
That’s not the case once they step off the state’s property and head east through the West Pedestrian Mall, Bradberry believes.
“This is my biggest headache,” he signed.
A quick walk through the strip between Rainbow Boulevard and the state park reveals numerous examples of what Bradberry calls “aesthetically poisonous.” Overturned plastic furniture used for resting places, dirty canvases covering up equipment, coolers meant for inside use sitting in rain puddles, closed down vendor booths in the middle of the day and even more weeds popping up from the ground are a few things that caught his eye.
“This area has so much potential and, right now, it’s just so tacky,” Bradberry said. “Does this look like a fun place to come to?”
According to Cleveland native Robert Spelling, a few unsightly areas and scattered trash wasn’t going to ruin his weekend trip to Niagara Falls.
“I think most people come to see the falls anyway and aren’t focused so much on whether everything else is perfect,” he said Thursday afternoon.
His friend and traveling partner, Christine Balik, couldn’t disagree more.
“It’s depressing when you see half of the stores boarded up and everything in such bad shape,” she countered. “It’s not the kind of impression I would want to give if I lived here.”
Louis Antonacci has a contract with the city to operate the vending businesses along the walkway. Bradberry said he’s looking into strengthening the city’s vendor codes in an attempt to create some consistency at the pedestrian mall, like having vendors operate specific hours throughout the week and not just close down when the crowds are light.
“I’m not going to let it open up next year without some big changes,” Bradberry said. “I’d rather shut it down than let it run the way it is.”
Antonacci declined to comment about the pedestrian mall. However, Niagara Falls Tourism Board Chairman Jerry Genova came to his defense, saying he believes Antonacci has addressed almost all of the concerns brought forth by Bradberry and other city officials. He added Bradberry’s obsession with the West Mall is “close-minded.”
“I don’t know what the deal is and why he’s fixating on just that,” Genova said. “The West Pedestrian Mall is the least of our worries.”
Genova said he’s looked through Antonacci’s contract with the city and believes all obligations are being met. Further, he said many of the unsightly aspects, such as cracked and collapsing sidewalks, were like that when Antonacci took over the property.
“The city turned it over like this and now they’re saying it looks terrible,” he said.
In particular, the vendors receive power through several generators sitting outside and supported by dollies — a dangerous system that’s been in place for nearly a decade.
“For the city to provide that type of electrical access is atrocious,” Genova said.
And while some city officials are quick to criticize Antonacci, he has invested more than $400,000 in the mall since taking over, Genova said. He’s also been fighting with the city for more than a year to try and add a carrousel to the property as an extra attraction for kids.
“There’s a lot more problems we need to address that don’t involve pointing fingers at the West Mall,” Genova said.
Addressing Main concerns
It’s easy to focus on the boarded up buildings, the failed businesses and lack of pedestrian traffic along the once thriving Main Street.
Bradberry sees something else, however — the last vestige of an historic era.
As others grieve about the countless boarded up buildings, Bradberry sees the fact they’re still standing and have not been demolished as a silver lining.
“It’s always a treasure when you can preserve buildings, especially with the wonderful architecture we have on Main Street,” he said. “This is what we call a place that has good bones.”
With the help of owners like Richard Hastings, who has several planned developments in the works, Bradberry believes some meat will soon be added to those bones. He points to current fixtures on Main Street such as the Orchard Grill and Bada Bean as proof businesses can survive there.
Of course, the ongoing development of the $25 million public safety complex on the street’s north end will provide a huge shot in the arm too, Bradberry said.
“All of the pieces are coming together,” he said.
Still, other areas near Main Street leave Bradberry puzzled. He said the city needs to get behind cultural heritage initiatives like the proposed North Star at the North End project and capitalize on the area’s ties to the Underground Railroad. In addition, attractions such as the Niagara Gorge and Lower Niagara River need to be celebrated.
Among his stops along the tour was a decaying parking lot near the Whirlpool Bridge. Stepping out of his car, Bradberry pulled back several tree limbs to unveil a spectacular view of the river. Nearby, the start of a gorge trail was filled with rocks and debris.
“You wouldn’t even know it’s here because it’s hidden from everyone,” Bradberry said. “This is the type of area we should work toward turning into a local landmark.”
Backing it up
Bradberry will be the first to admit it’s easy to take a ride through Niagara Falls and point out eyesores and areas needing improvement.
The real challenge is creating a game plan to combat the problems.
“I think what we need is to have the cooperation of everyone, from city officials to business owners and operators to USA Niagara to the NTCC to the Seneca Nation, to come together and share some of the responsibility and decision making in making Niagara Falls more attractive to tourists,” Bradberry said.
However, he’s not gullible enough to believe a bunch of suits talking at a meeting is going to fix everything. Things like increased police presence in downtown areas, more city inspectors making sure vendors and businesses are complying to code and a steady stream of qualified workers cleaning up the areas are sorely needed, he said.
Simply put, it’s going to take a lot more money than the city is spending now.
“It will require a reallocation of resources and dollars,” Bradberry said, adding that hasn’t happened yet due to “bureaucratic inertia.”
Genova agrees more funding is the key to solving many of the problems hurting the city’s tourism industry.
“We want everything fixed and done and we want that to happen by tomorrow, but the money is not there,” he said.
In lieu of a larger budget, both Bradberry and Genova agree the city’s stakeholders, including residents, can help out on a daily basis, just by picking up their trash or pulling the occasional weed from the ground.
“I think we can all figure out a way to not just make things acceptable, but amazing,” Bradberry said.
Contact reporter Rick Forgione
at 282-2311, ext. 2257.