It’s called the Buffalo Billion, but a chunk of it will be the catalyst for renewed tourism in Niagara Falls.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a public-private partnership between the state and Uniland Development Co. that will transform the former Rainbow Centre shopping mall into a year-round destination for tourists.
Adding a tourist attraction to an area that already attracts millions of tourists each year doesn’t seem as though it should be difficult. But unlike its Canadian neighbor, for years Niagara Falls couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.
Uniland’s “Wonder Falls” resort is expected to transform a moribund piece of downtown Niagara Falls and provide a reason for visitors to lengthen their stay with a 300-room hotel, themed restaurants, a spa, an indoor water park and a “daredevil adventure center” that will bear the name of famed wire walker Nik Wallenda.
The mall has been a mostly empty scar in the middle of downtown, gathering dust instead of tourists. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said it best: “It’s kind of an iconic eyesore. It’s the classic white elephant.”
The location is ideal. It is prime property downtown, close to the falls and bounded by Old Falls Street, First Street, Rainbow Boulevard and Niagara Street. Yet for years city and state leaders could not attract private investment.
With the governor’s attention and a billion-dollar promise, the tide has been turning in a positive direction.
The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, fronting Old Falls Street, opened in 2012. It takes up a third of the mall. That space will remain. Better still, Uniland is in talks with Niagara County Community College to expand the school, as well as the college’s hospitality programs, into the new structure.
There have been other signs of progress downtown recently, including a $25.3 million hotel, apartment and retail project from the Hamister Group expected to break ground in the spring, significant improvements by the state to Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara University’s plan for a center for high-tech innovation in the tourism industry and removal of parts of the Robert Moses Parkway that cut downtown off from the river.
The Uniland resort would bring 1,500 direct and indirect jobs during construction and more than 300 permanent jobs when the resort opens.
Questions remain on Wallenda’s “daredevil adventure,” and it remains to be seen how it will be financed and how much taxpayer funding will be involved.
In the meantime, city lawmakers must act. Because the city owns the vacant portion of the mall, it is up to lawmakers to vote on whether to accept the recommendation of Uniland as the preferred developer. From there a development agreement must be negotiated and approved by the Council.
The project is another step in reawakening a downtown that has too long been slumbering while the competition on the other side of the falls better understood how to leverage one of this world’s natural wonders.