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Maybe it is the missing ingredient - the seasoning that will finally turn Niagara Falls into the irresistible destination that is its birthright. After years of effort and planning, the $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls opened its doors this week, simultaneously injecting new life into the city and acting as a powerful new tourist attraction.
It was a fight to get this done. Some Niagara County legislators resented the idea of using tax dollars to benefit the city. They came around. The institute's new home, in the formerly crumbling Rainbow Centre mall, was hard to secure. But developer David A. Cordish finally gave up on his own vision for the building and donated it to Niagara County Community College, which operates the institute.
Now, the building sizzles. Its stainless steel cooking laboratory will help to fuel a bakery, a deli and a gourmet restaurant that will open to the public next month.
The institute has brought some 350 student chefs to downtown Niagara Falls and, before the restaurant, called Savor, even opens, tourists are making plans to visit. Three busloads have already signed up for a day trip to the institute. Besides enjoying a meal, the visiitors can learn how to make the dishes, through TV shows filmed in a "cooking theater" or through classes at the community kitchen. Even when the tourist season ends, the school will draw Western New Yorkers who want to enjoy that experience.
The value of this school goes beyond the students and tourists, though. It is the kind of attraction that leverages others. Buffalo developer Mark E. Hamister wants to build a $22 million boutique hotel next to the institute. Toronto developer Harry Stinson plans a $17 million renovation of the former Hotel Niagara.
Other developments are in the planning stages, too, independent of the Culinary Institute. Most intriguing, for its star quality, is a plan by high-wire artist Nik Wallenda to establish a "semi-permanent" entertainment center in Niagara Falls featuring a theatrical New Age show along with a museum showcasing daredevil artifacts and interactive activities as well as a full family show. He even hopes to include an attraction that would simulate Wallenda's June walk across Niagara Falls, including the feel of the wind and water.
Taking advantage of Wallenda's walk, merely by helping him do what he proposes, stands to make a tremendous contribution to the city's tourism economy, but it's also a gimme. All that city officials have to do is lend a hand and, as much as possible, stay out of the way.
The Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, by contrast, was a project that didn't have to happen. It was conceived, pursued and ultimately realized based on the vision of local people who overcame obstacles to achieve a goal that will serve the city and region for decades to come.
It's a refreshing change from the can't-do attitude that has pervaded Niagara Falls, also for decades. Here's hoping it's the start of something new - that it puts Niagara Falls on a roll toward becoming the tourist destination it was meant to be.