Developing a plan for downtown Niagara Falls

Anthony Vilardo

Anthony Vilardo says his new job is a lot like his old job.

And that has made his transition from the Falls director of business development to president of USA Niagara Development Corp. pretty smooth.

"It's been interesting, it's been an adjustment, but I worked closely with Chris Schoepflin while he was here and I was with the city so they're haven't been any surprises on a project to project basis. It's been pretty seamless transition," Vilardo said sitting in the top floor conference lounge of the Giacomo Hotel where USAN is headquartered. 

The 360 degree views from the lounge provide a bird's eye view of the challenges Vilardo faces. Looking out over the city, in particular the state park, the South End tourist district and downtown, the Falls native understands that residents here are looking to the agency to reverse the 1970s and 1980s disaster that was "urban renewal."

"How do we prepare for the next 50 years and how do we right the wrongs of the last 50 years?" Vilardo says with a look of determination. "That's what we're doing."

As a subsidiary of New York's Empire State Development Corporation, USAN is solely dedicated to "the support and promotion of economic development initiatives in Niagara Falls." That means not only does the agency dole out funding for projects while leveraging private investment, it also runs the city's Conference Center and oversees the management of Old Falls Street.

"It's been fun to get out every morning and walk the streets and have a more active approach to development," Vilardo said.

Within the last couple of weeks, he walked the downtown area with Falls City Administrator Nick Melson to conduct an assessment of immediate needs to improve the city’s appearance at the height of the tourist season.

“We found 46 trees that were missing or dead,” Melson said. “Twelve lights standards in need of repairs, four missing bollards at Centennial Circle and a broken tree grate on Rainbow Boulevard.”

Vilardo said he and Melson and local business leaders, who joined the walk, found that unacceptable.

"If we're going to be a world class destination, I don't think (tourists) expect to see street light stands with orange cones over them," Vilardo said. "That's not how we should present ourselves."

The Falls City Council is expected to consider a proposal to spend $25,000 to $30,000 in tourism funds to fix the streetscape at its meeting this coming week.

Vilardo says he comes to his new post with plenty of goals, including getting $14 million in downtown real estate, purchased in March from Tuscarora businessman Joseph "Smokin Joe" Anderson, back on the tax rolls.

"We've acquired a tremendous amount of property in the downtown core," Vilardo said. "We need to look at how we can recapture a pedestrian-friendly downtown."

On Thursday, Vilardo took a first toward that goal by releasing requests for proposals for the redevelop of four mixed-use former Anderson properties in the 400 and 500 blocks of Third Street and a Main Street parcel that was home to the ill-fated Snow Park.

The agency said it was seeking proposals for the “the acquisition, rehabilitation/restoration and reuse” of the properties, all of which are located in close proximity to one another and “represent a unique opportunity to contribute to the redevelopment of a historic commercial district in an iconic American city.”

“This is an opportunity to partner on development that will return property in downtown Niagara Falls to a productive use and add to the neighborhood fabric of Third Street,” Vilardo said.

And there's more to come.

In an extensive interview with the Gazette, Vilardo said USAN has begun bi-weekly status calls with the designated developers for the Hotel Niagara. 

"They are finalizing their historic tax credits and are still looking at starting construction in the fall, with an 18-month time frame to completion," Vilardo said.

The restoration and reopening of the Hotel Niagara would bring a crown jewel to what has been an explosion of lodging development in the city in the last decade.

"In 2010, our analysis showed we needed 1,000 upscale and upper upscale hotel rooms to maximize the potential for conferences and meetings here," Vilardo said. "So far, we've added 790."

And those new hotel rooms have not been left empty. Vilardo said for the months of April and May both room occupancy and room rates were up here and outpaced lodging locations across the border in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"This is allowing us to grow the conference center," Vilardo said. "Previously, we didn't have the room supply and what you've seen with the influx of upscale rooms, is the lower scale hotels have had to up their game. By any measure, 2018 was the best year ever for the conference center."

In looking at how best to bring revitalization and redevelopment to the city, Vilardo says his agency has found that the tourists coming to the Falls have become younger and have higher incomes than in the past. He said that means they are for "cool, niche things" that can be found in a "walkable downtown that blends seamlessly into the state park.

"They are looking for what we have called 'a city in a park'," Vilardo said. 

As Vilardo talks about his new job, and his goals for USAN, he becomes more and more animated. 

"Seeing the Falls revitalized is very important to me," Vilardo said. "I had four sets of grandparents (his and his wife's) who immigrated here and came to the shores of Niagara Falls. I am firmly invested in this community. I grew up here, was educated here, and my wife and I have chosen to raise our children here."

Gesturing to the example of revitalization that's represented by the Giacomo project, Vilardo said he first set foot in the building as a 7th grade student at Gaskill Middle School. A teacher had been able to arrange a tour for him, for a research project on redevelopment, in the gutted and crumbling shell of what had been the United Office Building.

"This building was a symbol of everything that Niagara Falls was," Vilardo said. "And it was vacant. If we can save this, we can do great things."

It's a sentiment shared by the state's top economic development official.

“As our economic development representative in downtown Niagara Falls, Anthony will be driving the strategies to grow business and tourism in the city,” Empire State Development President, CEO & Commissioner Howard Zemsky said.