Ann and Mike Walden thought of Niagara Falls almost immediately.
They just learned that their daughter, Megan, a member of the U.S. Army, was being assigned to a post at Fort Drum in New York state.
Finally, the family of three from Wichita, Kansas would get their chance to see the mighty falls.
For the Waldens, like so many other families before them, Niagara Falls represented one of those must-see vacation spots, a sight everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
“That was the first thing we thought of,” Ann Walden said, recalling her conversation with her daughter. “We said, ‘we’ll go with you so we can come to Niagara Falls.’ We always wanted to come here. Everyone has to see it for themselves, for once, in person.”
The Waldens finally had their first authentic Niagara Falls experience on a cool, blustery, overcast day in mid-August. They came off a soaking wet but fun ride on a Maid of the Mist boat to stand together near the brink of the Falls at Prospect Point, look over the railing and catch the mist in their faces as they took in the memorable view.
“It’s amazing,” Ann Walden said. “This is a destination for people from all over the world, obviously. When people want to come to America, the Falls is a destination for them.”
The Waldens are now among the tens of millions of visitors who have crossed the Falls off their bucket lists.
Getting them and others from across the country and around the globe to drive or fly hundreds and even thousands of miles to stand near the brink in Niagara Falls State Park has proven to be the easy part over the years.
Keeping them around for more than a few hours and convincing them there’s value in visiting other parts of the city and Niagara County has proven far more difficult.
“We’re trying to change the image that people have of this place and get people to think of Niagara Falls, not just as the Falls and the park, but Niagara Falls as a whole as a fun place to live,” said Mayor Paul Dyster. “I think that’s critical. We’re an old industrial town and we’ve got to change the mentality.”
In its heyday in 1960, the Cataract City boasted a population in excess of 100,000 people. Today, the number hovers around 50,000.
While downtown looks a lot different than it did a decade or so ago, outlying neighborhoods continue to exhibit signs of a community still dealing with a mass exodus of residents. Neglected properties, empty storefronts, deteriorating infrastructure and criminal activity remain persistent quality-of-life issues.
For long-suffering city residents and business owners, the turn from an industrial-based economy to one more capable of capitalizing on the Falls and the millions of tourists and tourism dollars they bring has been painfully slow.
Shawn Weber, whose Third Street wine bar, Wine on Third, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, became so frustrated with current conditions that he joined several other local business leaders in forming Reclaim Niagara, a grassroots group that believes the city should be capitalizing on more of its own assets instead of allowing state entities like the New York Power Authority and the state parks department to pull millions of dollars from the area.
While enthusiastic about recent developments, including the opening of several new, multi-million-dollar hotels, Weber said there are still many glaring problems in the city, including blight and crime.
“Obviously, there are still many things to work on,” he said. “The new hotels, that’s all good news because the more things that happen, the better.”
“There are some good things going on, but Niagara Falls still has the same fundamental structural problems,” he added. “Property taxes are too high. State taxes are too high. The crime’s out of control. I thought that we’d be so much further developed on Third Street by now.”
CHANGE IN THE AIR
There have been some signs of progress in recent years.
In all, there have been six major renovation or construction projects involving hotels in the downtown area since 2015. The multi-million-dollar facilities added hundreds of new rooms to the market, addressing at least in part a deficiency documented in a study commissioned by the state in 2010.
For the first time in decades, downtown welcomed actual “new build” construction projects, including the $10 million Wingate by Wyndham hotel, which was completed in 2015, and the $35 million Hyatt Place hotel, which is slated for completion early next year.
In August, local and state officials announced the selection of a preferred developer to revive another long-vacant hotel property in the Hotel Niagara. Often referred to as the “Grand Lady” of the Falls, the 1920s-era structure represents a key parcel in the ongoing effort to revitalize downtown as a whole.
In addition, state and local officials insist a formal development agreement is imminent with Uniland, the Buffalo company that four years ago announced plans for a $150 million project involving a hotel, water park and daredevil-themed attraction inside the vacant portion of the former Rainbow Centre Mall building.
On the infrastructure front, crews are continuing to reconfigure the southern section of the former Robert Moses Parkway — now the Niagara Scenic Parkway — a project aimed at improving pedestrian access and the visitor experience along the upper Niagara River near Buffalo Avenue.
A second phase of the parkway project — removal of all four lanes of the northern section from Main Street to Findlay Drive — is currently in the design phase and is expected to move into construction next year. In addition to the reconstruction of nearby Whirlpool Street, the project will result in the replacement of roughly two miles of parkway with an estimated 300 acres of green space along the Niagara Gorge rim between Niagara Falls State Park and Whirlpool and DeVeaux Woods state parks.
Both parkway projects combined represent a state investment in excess of $60 million, with the bulk of the funding coming from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.
In recent months, smaller projects have been announced away from the core downtown area. On Niagara Street, for example, Niagara University’s Global Tourism Institute has announced plans to refurbish a pair of vacant properties as part of the creation of a tourism-technology incubator. A few blocks down the street, Buffalo-based Community Beer Works has acquired three properties as part of a plan to develop a brewery and restaurant.
City and state officials insist more success stories are on the horizon.
Dyster says a big challenge remains in convincing residents to get on board with the idea that Niagara Falls, New York is not the same place it was a decade or so ago.
“One of the things I find most unbelievable is that you have people who live in other parts of the city who haven’t hopped in their cars to go see what’s happening downtown who have a picture in their heads of what downtown was like 10 or more years ago that is definitely not accurate,” Dyster said.
As downtown grows and improves, Dyster said it is hoped the rest of the city will begin to reap benefits as well.
“Downtown is a critical neighborhood,” Dyster said. “It’s the public commons. It’s the place where visitors land when they come to our city and it generates, far and a way, the greatest economic gain per square acre of any place in the city. You’re not going to have a successful city, especially a successful tourist city, if you don’t have a successful downtown.”
Helping guide the changes downtown has been the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp., an entity created by former Gov. George Pataki in 2001 to oversee development in the city’s core. Where the Falls once put its resources behind “silver bullet,” big ideas that produced largely disappointing results, USA Niagara has endorsed more of a one-project, one-parcel-at-a-time philosophy.
“There is no silver bullet,” said USA Niagara President Chris Schoepflin. “There is no panacea. There is no quick fix, especially if you want to do it right.”
While many would like to see the pace of progress accelerated, Schoepflin believes the approach has proven successful so far. As evidence, he points to the increasing number of new investors who have undertaken projects in the city and the private-sector investment dollars they have brought with them in recent years.
“We are proud to be bringing the largest private-sector construction project that will also support tourism in Niagara Falls in over 30 years,” said Mark Hamister, owner of the Hamister Group, the developer currently working on the Hyatt Place hotel project at the corner of Rainbow Boulevard and Old Fall Street.
PROJECTS IN THE WORKS
USA Niagara claims it has been involved in 46 projects representing more than $600 million in investment in the Falls since 2002.
Not all of the projects have been completed, however.
Some, such as the proposed Niagara Experience Center project ($108 million) and the WonderFalls project ($150 million), are still on the drawing board.
The agency’s list also contains some projects that have come and gone, like the $1.25 million effort in 2002 to move the Niagara Aerospace Museum into the Seneca Office Building downtown. The museum has since relocated to the old terminal at the Niagara Falls International Airport.
Several of the highest cost items involved infrastructure updates or public improvement projects, including the $20 million development of Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls, $3.7 million Third Street streetscape improvements, the $3.9 million razing of the Wintergarden building and the $35 million development of the Niagara Falls Culinary Center, a project that also included upgrades for the nearby city parking ramp.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of development and there are a ton of success stories downtown,” Schoepflin said.
Having supported hotel investment downtown, local and state officials are now turning their attention to another area of need — more fun things for people to see and do during their visits.
While the American side has long been considered the place where visitors can enjoy a more natural, up-close and personal experience, Niagara Falls, Ontario has traditionally held the advantage when it comes to family friendly attractions, entertainment and night life.
During a visit to the Falls last July, Cuomo highlighted the need to develop the kind of attractions that will keep families busy and keep visitors coming back for more on the American side. He called for more “world-class” recreational opportunities, cultural exhibits and family-orientated attractions.
“We have to make Niagara Falls the place to do the coolest, most fun, educational, family activities,” Cuomo said.
Part of the effort involves continuing to push for the development of the proposed Niagara Experience Center, which would offer visitors the chance to enjoy interactive exhibits while learning more about points of interest in the Falls and other parts of Niagara County. The Wonderfalls project remains in the mix, according to officials who have also in recent months put out requests for proposals for companies interested in expanding outdoor recreational opportunities like zip-lining and snowshoeing along the Niagara Gorge rim.
When it comes to reshaping the community, Schoepflin said it’s as much about creating an attractive and “authentic” Niagara Falls feel not only for visitors like the Waldens but also for those who live and work in and around the city.
A big part of the effort has involved reclaiming what Schoepflin views as the community’s primary asset — its waterfront. He believes parkway removal will be a huge addition by subtraction, one that will become more evident to visitors once the work on both the southern and northern sections is completed.
“Everyday this place looks better,” Schoepflin said.
“It’s really exciting what’s going to happen here over the next five to 10 years,” he added.