USA Niagara Development Corp. arrived on the scene in 2001 armed with some potentially powerful tools for dealing with one of the city’s most-pressing concerns: downtown land owners who have for years sat idle on their vacant properties.

The state offered a wealth of development knowledge, a higher level of legal expertise and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to force speculators to turn over land under the power of eminent domain.

So far, the state used its eminent domain power just once downtown when it acquired the old Falls Street Faire site for the purposes of turning the building into Conference Center Niagara Falls.

USA Niagara President Christopher Schoepflin said he does not anticipate a time in the near future when his agency will go down that road again. For now, he said, the agency’s preferred approach is diplomacy, with a side of self-improvement.

“Certainly, government has remedies down the road, but engagement with current landowners and a positive resolution is always, from a time and cost perspective, much more productive,” he said.

Schoepflin said USA Niagara maintains an open dialogue with the higher-profile developers in its district, including perhaps the two most controversial, Cordish Corp. which leases the dormant Rainbow Mall and Niagara Falls Redevelopment which controls the Turtle building downtown and a large swath of land near the old Nabisco plant east of John B. Daly Boulevard.

As the dialogue continues, Schoepflin said the agency is focusing on work it can accomplish in the near-term that will make the area more attractive not only to residents and visitors, but to investors as well. He pointed to the pending redevelopment of the west pedestrian mall as a good example of an improvement effort that could spur neighboring property owners to re-assess their investment plans.

“We can say, look, we’re doing all this work around you and we’re continuing to improve the marketplace,” he said.

Mayor Paul Dyster said he too supports the diplomatic approach, but said it comes with an understanding that more aggressive tactics can still be employed in situations where all other options have been exhausted. In some cases Dyster said it may be necessary for the state and the city to take a more aggressive approach, especially when it comes to land owners who appear to have little interest in developing their properties.

As is the case with some Third Street property owners, Dyster said out-of-towners who own multiple buildings aren’t even complying with local building codes or generally accepted maintenance standards much less offering to open a new restaurant or shop.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to pull those people along with you if you want to make things happen,” Dyster said.

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