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NIAGARA FALLS - Take a spoonful of corruption, add a pinch of infighting and sprinkle with a series of bad mistakes, and you get the too-frequent Niagara Falls recipe for tourism disaster.
It's a long-standing dish that has wasted a natural wonder and embarrassed the region, but there are signs it's slowly fading from the city's menu.
The new entree promises to be a whole lot tastier.
It's the $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, which opened this month to rave reviews and offers the potential to pump life into a city that needs it.
Picture this: The crumbling former Rainbow Centre mall has been refurbished as a mecca for 350 Niagara County Community College student chefs, doubling the number of restaurants along the main tourism strip.
The first step in a three-point plan to revitalize a key part of downtown, the cooking school gives the area the young people it never had and a winter attraction it always craved.
And for once, travelers who leave the falls or the casino will actually have something else to do.
"I can't believe this exists in Western New York, and I can't believe I'm working here," said Scott Steiner, chairman of the local board of the American Culinary Federation. "Absolutely [we will draw people] from Western New York, but it's going to draw from the nation, as well."
Steiner, a former banquet chef at the Buffalo Club, was teaching students how to make Spanish fritters Wednesday in a stainless steel cooking laboratory.
Once his students perfect their dishes, visitors will gobble them up at the institute's bakery, deli and gourmet restaurant, which will open next month.
If their creations become favorites, business students will market them at the retail test center on the second floor.
You can learn how to make them, too, through TV shows filmed at the Emiril Lagasse-like "cooking theater" or classes at the community kitchen.
"Right now, from a facilities standpoint, we are probably one of the top three or four culinary schools in the nation," said Mark A. Mistriner, chairman of the college's Business and Hospitality Division.
Mistriner, the American Culinary Federation's Northeast regional chef educator of the year, said three busloads of tourists have already signed up for a day trip.
They'll take a cooking class, taste local wines at the institute's wine boutique, dine at the Savor gourmet restaurant and browse the new Barnes & Noble cooking store.
Oh yes. They'll see the falls, too.
"I see us becoming a destination," Mistriner said. "It really has been a transformation, not a renovation."
The building had been in decay since the Rainbow Centre's steady decline, and just last year, it looked like a "war zone," one official said, with mold on the walls, puddles on the ground and a flock of birds living in the ceiling.
More than that, the building stood for decades as a symbol of everything Niagara Falls had done wrong.
"The Rainbow Mall being empty for so long had become emblematic of the lack of downtown development," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "I can't tell you how many people told me, 'It looks so beautiful. I never even looked at that space before; I tried to look away.'?"
That began to change two years ago when developer David S. Cordish finally gave up on his attempts to do for Niagara Falls what he had done for Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Cordish threw his hands up and, after a late-night phone conversation with NCCC President James P. Klyczek, donated the mall to the college.
"It was a perfect match - what the city wanted and needed and what we wanted to do," Klyczek said. "It brings some liveliness to the area, and it shows we've got a legitimate venture going on."
The state paid for roughly half of the $30 million project, with the city, county, college and Seneca Gaming Corp. also chipping in.
While the cooking labs and Barnes & Noble opened this month, the restaurants are set to open in mid-October.
The gourmet restaurant's patio will open to Old Falls Street, a cobblestone way the state built in 2010 to connect Niagara Fall State Park to the casino and the city.
"The problem was, there just wasn't anything for [tourists] to do on the street," Dyster said. "The culinary institute brings retail life to the street, but it also constitutes a tourist attraction in and of itself. I think it will benefit the city, and the region as a whole, in ways we haven't thought of."
Private developers already have started to take interest in the properties around the institute.
Buffalo developer Mark E. Hamister has announced plans to build a $22 million boutique hotel adjacent to the site, and a group of urban planners will recommend a strategy later this month to develop the remaining two-thirds of the mall.
Down the street, Toronto developer Harry Stinson plans a $17 million renovation for the former Hotel Niagara.
"The institute will encourage other types of development like housing, retail and food and beverage as the private sector begins to capitalize on the school's Niagara Falls presence by creating places for students, residents and visitors to live and work," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.
Perhaps most importantly, the institute will draw people downtown after the tourists pack up and leave.
"Typically, we are almost closed up in the wintertime, so it gives us that element we've been missing," said John Percy, president and chief executive of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "People are watching this culinary television, and now they can actually experience it firsthand."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com