In life, there are turning points – opportunities to embark on new and more productive paths. We can choose to take those paths or not, but if no one is paying attention, the opportunity may not even be recognized. Niagara Falls is at one of those crossroads today. Its leaders need to see it and to act on it.
The big news in the past week is that the State of New York and the Seneca Nation of Indians have resolved their three-year standoff over casino gaming in Western New York. With it, the Niagara Falls will get an infusion of $89 million it was owed and, equally as important, will see those revenues begin to flow again going forward.
It’s a huge development for Niagara Falls, but it’s hardly the only thing happening in the struggling city with the famous name. Last week, some $5 million in improvements to Niagara Falls State Park was officially unveiled. Luna Island, which provides a close-up look at both the American Falls and Bridal Veil falls, was renovated. So were Three Sisters Islands and the passage to Cave of the Winds.
It was important work, since the park’s down-at-the-heels condition had been publicized by a New York Times travel writer. The improvements are already gaining notice.
The city is also on the verge of reclaiming its riverfront, obstructed for decades by the misbegotten Robert Moses Parkway. A section of the road is to be ripped up, while adjacent Whirlpool Street will be transformed into a low-speed, two-lane parkway like the one across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont.
That long-needed improvement will not only help to tempt visitors into a longer stay – a hike down to Devil’s Hole would be a highlight of any trip – but it will improve the quality of life for city residents.
And more: The recent opening of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute in the former, long-dead, Rainbow Centre shopping mall, is giving visitors and residents a new reason to go downtown. The institute provides students from Niagara County Community College an opportunity to run a restaurant – three eateries, actually – and is a welcome and important addition to downtown.
What all this means is that things in Niagara Falls look significantly different today than they did just two years ago, when the casino fight was raging, the park was deteriorating, the removal of the Moses Parkway was a dream and the Rainbow Centre was a corpse. All that change creates opportunities that city leaders must first recognize and then act upon.
It’s a significant enough time in the city’s history that it would do well to seek expert outside help in figuring out how best to make use of the opportunities these changes are creating. Those opportunities include not just economic expansion, focusing especially on tourism, but also on the city’s management structure, its decision-making processes and its budgeting procedures.
Niagara Falls isn’t famous for its abilities in any of those areas and, conversely, it is well-known for insularity and a refusal to accept – let alone seek – outside help. Only a few months ago, when the casino standoff was threatening the city’s fiscal health, the City Council rejected an offer of financial help from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, which volunteered to pay $4,000 to continue the city’s membership in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. Before that, it rejected a $13 million lifeline from the New York Power Authority.
That kind of tunnel vision doesn’t augur well for a city that has an opportunity to move ahead if only it will take off the blinders. But that’s the opportunity. Things are happening and the city needs to make the most of them. To do that, it will need help.