Numerous questions remain about a Canadian hotelier's latest plans for a new downtown attraction after the mayor of the City of Niagara Falls suggested Wednesday that they may have been potentially misrepresented to members of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.
Michael DiCienzo pitched the "Niagara Beach and Surf Club" to the IDA's board of directors at their monthly meeting on Wednesday while providing them with what appeared to be a rendering of the proposed $15 million project, which he said would include a wave pool and an artificial beach under a retractable dome roof.
"This is not an amenity to a hotel, it's an attraction," he told IDA board members.
The board granted conditional approval to DiCienzo's company, NFNY Hotel Management, LLC, for a $2 million reimbursable grant from the "Cataract Tourism Fund," a pot of state funds earmarked for tourism-related projects in downtown Niagara Falls by state Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.
DiCienzo told the board he has retained access to a $300,000 grant secured for a prior project from the city's development arm, the NFC Development Corp. The company still has to acquire a parcel owned by the city where he envisions the project being built. DiCienzo indicated that he was not concerned about the acquisition, suggesting it involved "just a matter of cutting the check."
During an interview following Wednesday's NCIDA meeting, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said neither the grant nor any sales agreement for the parcel are in force.
In addition, Dyster said his review of the "rendering" showed that it was actually a depiction of a now-demolished artificial beach in Japan. Dyster said the image distributed to NCIDA officials by DiCenzio had been reduced to one-seventh its normal size and photoshopped into a picture of the intersection at Niagara and Third Streets.
"It clearly is not a rendering of the planned project," he said.
The image referenced by Dyster, which does appear to have been cut and pasted into the area of downtown Niagara Falls where DiCenzio's company wants to build its project, was of Japan's Seagaia Ocean Dome, a 300,000 square-foot, $2 billion facility that was open between 1993 and 2017, when it was demolished.
Dyster said he was concerned about how the project was represented to the NCIDA board, calling DiCienzo's image either a "mistake or a lie." The mayor said he recognizes the need for all-year attractions downtown, and called a water park a "legitimate" idea, but said the way the pitch unfolded Wednesday was problematic.
"There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this," he said.
DiCienzo's proposal follows a now-scrapped plan to build a $70 million daredevil-themed waterpark with several slides. He had made prominent pleas for additional public financing and criticized the state for not providing financial support in 2017 and 2018. After being scaled down multiple times, the project never came to fruition.
DiCienzo said Wednesday he has had multiple conversations with officials at the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp. which he described as "encouraging." He said he will request another $2 million from USAN, which oversees state development efforts in downtown Niagara Falls. The IDA grant is contingent on DiCienzo receiving the state money.
A spokesmen for the corporation said, "Mr. DiCienzo has contacted USAN and we are in discussions."
DiCienzo declined to answer additional questions from a Niagara Gazette reporter following the NCIDA meeting.
Geoffrey Reeds, vice president of sales and marketing for American Niagara Hospitality, one of DiCienzo's affiliated companies, said the images provided to the board were not renderings but "inspirational documents." He said he could not speak to the grant or land acquisition.
"I don’t feel like he’s trying to lie or be mistaken in any way," Reeds said.
William Ross, a member of the NCIDA board, said DiCienzo's project was of a nature that the agency has desired to see move forward.
"We've looked for these types of projects for years," he said, calling its strongest attribute the potential for year-round activity.
Joan Aul, another board member, was the sole vote in opposition to DiCienzo's proposal. She said she considered it a worthwhile project but was concerned that the value of the grant would deplete the fund for tourism-related projects as earmarked by Ortt.
After a $1 million allocation to the Niagara Falls Tourism Center, or One Niagara, was approved last month, along with Wednesday's approval and others in the past, the once $4.6 million fund has an available balance of about $211,500.
Ortt did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether the fund will be replenished.