The year just ended was a time of hopes, promises and dreams for Niagara County.
Only time will tell which of those hopes, promises or dreams may come true any time soon for a county that has limped along for far too long without many signs of real progress.
There were, of course, some positive signs, but whether they will come to complete fruition still is an open question.
William L. Ross, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature, conceded in his State of the County address that “the last few years were tough for everyone. The staff of the Niagara County Economic Development Center was challenged to keep economic development moving forward despite the economic climate.”
During 2013, Ross said, a $180,000 grant will be awarded to help clean up brownfields; new sites will be added to the state-certified list of properties that are “shovel-ready” for development; 1.2 megawatts of low-cost electricity will be marketed to companies to locate or expand in Niagara County; and $35,000 to $40,000 in grants will be awarded to enhance local business districts.
Among goals for 2013, the chairman said, are the consolidation or sharing of services among various levels of government to reduce county taxes; retention of the 914th and 107th Airlift Wings at the Niagara Falls Air Force Reserve Station; and support for the removal of radioactive waste from the Niagara Falls Storage Site, formerly called the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works.
A few cases in point:
• Niagara Falls International Airport has been modernized and enlarged, attracting some scheduled passenger flights mainly to Southern cities, but a cloud appeared on the horizon when one of the three airlines, Direct Air, abruptly shut down its service last March and filed for bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force put its adjoining Niagara Falls Reserve Station on the list for closure because of budget restrictions, although local officials hope to save the air base by lining up a new mission guiding drone aircraft.
Ross said the other airlines serving Niagara Falls – Spirit and Allegiant – “are doing well and have promised new destinations in the near future.”
• Confusion continued over what to do with toxic and radioactive waste from the World War II Lake Ontario Ordinance Works in the towns of Lewiston and Porter. Some residents want the material to be totally removed to a permanent storage site in another state, while many environmental experts believe that the buried waste poses no danger to the area.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is struggling to find an answer to the 70-year-old dilemma, but its timetable is unlikely to be completed this year.
Ross said one of the County Legislature’s goals for 2013 is to “remove radioactive waste at the Niagara Falls Storage Site.”
• Niagara County Community College’s Culinary Institute has moved into the long-vacant Rainbow Mall shopping center in downtown Niagara Falls, but it has not been there long enough to establish an enduring reputation as a tourist destination nor as a premier teaching center for the hospitality industry – and part of the mall still remains vacant.
Ross called the Culinary Institute a “showpiece” and a “jewel of post-secondary education,” as well as “an outstanding addition to the community college.”
• The vacant and deteriorating Hotel Niagara, once a highly recognized landmark in Niagara Falls, has been taken over by a new developer, and plans call for it to be restored to some of its former grandeur.
The nearby United Office Building, once the tallest building in Niagara Falls, has been rescued from years of neglect, and a couple of its floors have been modernized as the attractive and high-end Giacomo Hotel. Most of the rest of the building remains vacant.
• Because of a change in contracts, the long-running Maid of the Mist boat tours lost their docking and maintenance facilities on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, and it appeared for a time that the popular tours might not be available on the United States side.
Only some fast footwork by local and state officials found docking space on the American side, and the boats are scheduled to run this year.
It is too early to tell how their competition with the new boats moored on the Canadian side will work out.
Robert Moses fight
• The long fight over the scenic Robert Moses Parkway continued. When it was built a couple of generations ago, the parkway was considered a marvel of transportation that would put the Niagara River and its majestic falls within sight of millions of drivers and passengers who wouldn’t even have to get out of their cars to appreciate the natural wonders.
Today, environmentalists and local business interests want the parkway removed, to provide easier pedestrian access to the river and perhaps to entice visitors into the city’s business districts.
It appears that part of the parkway will be removed, but so far the two sides have not come to any firm agreement on its exact future.
• Work has started on a new Niagara Falls Transportation Center and Underground Railroad museum to serve passenger trains, buses, taxis, automobiles, pedestrians and tourists, but not all of the funding is in place, and it is uncertain when it may be put into service.
• Millions of dollars in revenue from slot machines at the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel were earmarked for massive improvements in infrastructure and building stock in Niagara Falls, only to see that income held up in a dispute between the Seneca Nation of Indians and the State of New York. Many of the planned improvements never were started or were left only partly finished when the city’s share of the expected casino funds dried up.
• More than 440 parcels – the largest developable tract within two miles of the cataracts – remain vacant and largely untended, with no firm development plan in sight. City officials at one time pinned their hopes for major commercial and residential redevelopment on the sprawling tract held by companies owned by Manhattan billionaire and State Thruway Authority Chairman Howard P. Milstein, but little development ever occurred.
• Old Falls Street, connecting Niagara Falls State Park with the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, has been transformed from a city street into an attractive pedestrian walkway, but it has yet to attract the vendors or merchants who had been expected to cater to the hordes of tourists who would crowd the beautified walkway. Neither the vendors, merchants nor the high volume of tourists have yet materialized.
• Voters in Niagara Falls agreed to borrow up to $67 million to expand or repair every building in the city’s public school system and to install artificial turf on its main athletic fields. Work is expected to begin this year.
Yet, dissatisfaction with public schools continued to grow as more applications for independent charter schools were filed with the state Education Department. Some charter schools have failed to live up to their expectations, but others are on the horizon and it appears that more charters – not fewer – are yet to come.