Niagara Falls is one step closer to fixing a decades-old downtown development mistake.
Planning experts from across the country on Monday came to the Cataract City to suggest new uses for the former Rainbow Centre mall.
By week's end, the consultants for the Urban Land Institute will recommend creative ways to repurpose the long-vacant structure, which never caught on after opening in the 1980s.
The visit comes just weeks after the mall received its first tenant with the opening of the $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls.
With the culinary school up and running in the mall's southern end, officials now seek to fill the two-thirds of the mall that remains vacant.
"Not only does it give us national exposure, but it gives a fresh set of eyes for the redevelopment of downtown Niagara Falls, and it gives instant credibility to the project when we're reaching out at a national and international level," said Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp.
Officials point to the land institute's plan for the former Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital as an example of its expertise in adaptive reuse.
The 10-member panel, which includes a diverse mix of planners, developers, consultants and former officials, took its first tour of the Falls on Monday.
Their interest in the downtown mall, coupled with the opening of the culinary school, already has had a psychological effect on downtown travelers, officials said.
"For so long, the Rainbow mall was the symbol of the decline of downtown," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "This [is] another big piece into the redevelopment of downtown, and many believe this may be the hardest piece."
"The faster we come up with a plan for the Rainbow Centre, the faster all forms of development can move," he added.
Officials have made it clear their biggest challenge is turning the 200,000 square feet of vacant space into an attraction that catches the eyes of tourists around the falls.
While ground-level retail is expected, significant challenges exist because the mall was built to appeal to traveling motorists rather than pedestrians.
Like recent additions to the Walden Galleria and McKinley Mall, the mall will be turned "inside out," officials said, with storefronts facing outward. They hope that will draw tourists walking out of nearby Niagara Falls State Park.
They have also said the mall could serve a more creative use than traditional retail.
"This thing needs to reflect the fact that it sits only a few hundred yards from the brink of the falls," Dyster said.
Charles Johnson, a panelist from the land institute, said vacant malls can serve many uses, such as farmers markets or sports complexes. Johnson helped plan the transformation of a vacant urban mall in Louisville, Ky., into a food, retail and entertainment destination.
"This is an odd mall," he said of the Rainbow. "We have our work cut out for us. But if 9 million people are coming here [each year], you ought to be able to do something."
The panel is headed by Glenda Hood, a former Orlando mayor and Florida secretary of state who said the tourism strategy of the Falls should be different than the one her city created with Disney parks.
"Nowadays, people are so focused on the outdoors and natural beauty . you've got this natural environment with the falls and the gorge, and you need to capitalize on that," Hood said.
The panelists will interview more than 90 downtown stakeholders and make general recommendations on Friday.
The land institute is expected to give the state its full recommendations by November, and the state would issue requests for development proposals in early 2013, with a developer selected later that year.
The state and National Grid paid $125,000 for the study, which comes as Buffalo developer Mark Hamister seeks to build a $22 million boutique hotel across from the mall.
"There's been a lot of momentum, a lot of progress in downtown Niagara Falls," Hoyt said. "I think that, with the progress that's been made, there has been and will continue to be renewed interest in downtown development in Niagara Falls."