I’ve heard of more than one person who won’t do business in Niagara Falls.
History has served up too many excuses not to tangle with the city – the mobsters who reigned 50 years ago, the union leaders who threatened violence little more than a decade ago, the shadowy corruption that has tainted City Hall as recently as this spring.
The latest saga that has enveloped a proposal from Buffalo developer Mark Hamister to build a hotel with shops and apartments in downtown Niagara Falls has only helped cement the city’s reputation as a place to avoid. Anonymous character assassinations. Petty politics. Murky motives.
It’s no wonder Hamister nearly pulled out of the deal this month.
You’d have an easier time fixing the Buffalo Board of Education than erasing the reputation that hangs over Niagara Falls and threatens to smother its future.
People know that story. But look a little deeper, beyond the clichés of Falls failures or the bluster of city politicians or the disappointment of deals past. Those are not the whole picture. Complicated development projects have been done. Buildings left for dead have been revived. Progress has been made.
Amid the broken-down buildings and flagmen hawking overpriced parking are signs it really is possible to do development in downtown Niagara Falls. Take for instance Wine on Third, where three partners took a chance six years ago on turning a vacant building into a wine bar and restaurant. This spring, they expanded to add a brick oven pizzeria a few doors down.
Or look a few blocks away, where the 20-story art deco United Office Building sat vacant for more than two decades before Carl Paladino turned it into the boutique Giacomo Hotel.
Sure, Paladino ran into resistance, but what bugs him looking back? Not the unions, although some did picket his site. Not local government, where he found cooperation. Not the element of politics he dubs the “incestuous parasites,” which he dismissed as little more than an annoyance. “They really scare other developers and owners away,” he said. “I’m just not intimidable, so they can’t scare me away.”
It was the windows that still irk him. He wanted to replace the 546 windows in the building. The state historic preservation office wanted them restored. They eventually worked it out.
In a city infamous for failures and fraud, it was plain-old historic preservation rules that got to him.
The holdup over Hamister’s hotel is a familiar story for the Falls. In fact, it’s not even a new story on this piece of land. Back in the late ’80s, long before the Hard Rock Café opened and the Rainbow Centre mall closed, it was still a vacant plot of land at the heart of a development deal. A hotel was envisioned but never built. Perhaps, this time, the city can get it right.
Dickering over development is a tale as old as tourism in the Falls. But it’s not the only story.
Buildings left for dead have been revived. Progress has been made.
It really is possible to do development in downtown Niagara Falls.