A subsidiary of the company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers will take over the city's conference center in January, and the ill-fated Wintergarden will be torn down in two big moves, it was announced Wednesday by USA Niagara.
The demolition of the controversial, glass-paneled landmark on Rainbow Boulevard is part of a $7.9 million makeover of the Old Falls Street tourist area from Third Street to Prospect Street, near the entrance to Niagara State Park.
"It will be Falls Street all over again," Christopher Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, said after the board of directors meeting in the resurrected United Office Building.
The original Falls Street, which flourished for decades until urban renewal tore up the city in the early 1970s, stretched from the park more than a mile to Portage Road. It was a vibrant entertainment and shopping district with two movie theaters, stores and businesses frequented by local residents and visitors.
"Trains from New York City would drop hundreds of visitors a day in the station at Third and Falls streets," recalled Bill Bradberry, who grew up in the area. "And from there, it was a short, shop-filled, entertainment-packed walk to the falls."
The towering Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, built five years ago, permanently blocks any rebirth of the entire length of the original Falls Street.
"We don't have the entire structure to work with, but we hope to capture some of the flavor of the Old Falls Street," Schoepflin said.
Reconnecting the city to the falls has been one of the main goals of Mayor Paul A. Dyster since he took office in January, and removing the obstacle of the Wintergarden has become a necessary step to achieve that goal, he said at the USA Niagara meeting.
Dyster was involved in efforts to save the Wintergarden five years ago just before it ceased to be a public garden and was sold for $1 million to a group of investors that included Joseph Anderson. Anderson operated Smokin' Joe's Family Fun Center in the building until late last year. USA Niagara will buy it for $1.6 million.
Before becoming mayor, Dyster had helped save several buildings from the wrecker's ball.
"As much as I believe we should make every effort to preserve city landmarks and historic buildings," Dyster said, "the Wintergarden's time has come. This is not a decision I take lightly."
The Wintergarden will be demolished late this year or early next year, depending on the weather, Schoepflin said.
Before that, however, reconstruction of the West Mall portion of Old Falls Street from First to Prospect streets will begin this month, with a scheduled completion date of October 2009.
The reconstruction project will mean an end to the seven food vendors and the miniature golf course that Niagara Falls businessman and Como Restaurant co-owner Louis Antonacci -- operating under the name of Fallside Marketplace -- has run since 2002.
The city renewed Antonacci's five-year lease last year but announced Wednesday that Antonacci has agreed to surrender the remaining years of the lease in exchange for $310,000 to allow the reconstruction to begin.
Currently reserved for pedestrians, the new 420-foot-long West Mall will be reopened to vehicular traffic during the off tourist season and include a cobblestone road with two wide plaza areas for short-term parking, new sidewalks, benches, bicycle racks, pedestrian areas and old-fashioned light standards.
USA Niagara's goal is to "help recapture Falls Street as the economic center of the downtown tourist area."
The $3 million reconstruction of the East Mall section, between First and Third streets, was completed in August of 2007.
Centerpiece of the East Mall is Conference Center Niagara Falls, which has been managed for the past five years by Sentry Hospitality. USA Niagara's lease with Sentry ends Dec. 31 and will not be renewed.
USA Niagara directors on Wednesday approved a new five-year contract running until Dec. 31, 2013, with Global Spectrum of Philadelphia at a basic management fee of $132,000 for the first year, to be adjusted annually depending on the local consumer price index. The company will receive incentive fees based on bookings and in-house food and beverage sales.
Global Spectrum manages more than 70 facilities in the United States and Canada, Schoepflin said. Operations include the Wachovia complex in Philadelphia and convention centers in Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico.
Global's parent company is Comcast-Spectacor, one of the world's largest sports and entertainment companies. Holdings include the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and 3601 Creative Group, a full-service advertising agency.
"This is really a top-notch firm," said USA Niagara board member Joan Aul, addressing the meeting via conference call from New York City.e-mail: email@example.com