Tue, Aug 07, 2012 - Page 15 News List

Niagara Falls takes broad approach to draw people

FALLING NUMBERS:The cash-strapped town, once a major industrial hub, is experimenting with a series of plans in a bid to encourage new economic growth

AP, NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK

In recent years, Niagara Falls has thrown open its doors to casino gambling, gay weddings and a tightrope walk that, until laws were relaxed, would have meant arrest.

It even briefly considered taking in toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing.

On the drawing board now is a plan to entice young people to move in by paying down their student loans.

With its spectacular natural wonder — the famous waterfall that dramatically cascades over a cliff — tourism was the city’s main draw until the early 1900s, when the growth of numerous chemical plants fueled the rise of a hydropower-fueled industrial base, but industry started to lose steam in the late 1950s and 1960s and a long, slow decline set in as the region’s manufacturing withered away.

Now that the US city’s old strategy of industry over tourism has been abandoned, a new economic plan appears to have emerged: Try anything.

“If you piece together a series of wins, then I think it becomes transformative,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said, reflecting on efforts to reverse fortunes in a city where one in five people live in poverty and the population of 50,193 is less than half what it was in the 1960s.

There is no hiding the obvious financial hardship for the city whose gateway landmark is a mothballed Shredded Wheat factory: Dilapidated houses and boarded storefronts dot the urban landscape, this summer’s Italian Festival was canceled for lack of sponsors and night games for varsity sports were scrapped for next season to save the school district the cost of lighting the field. About 22 percent of people currently live below the poverty level, compared with about 14 percent statewide.

Perhaps the most thriving enterprise in Niagara Falls today is the Seneca Indian Nation’s 10-year-old Seneca Niagara Casino, which largely operates as an island with few surrounding businesses appearing to benefit from the estimated 7 million patrons who visit the gaming facility every year. For the past few years, the city has not even seen its promised share of slot machine profits — US$58 million and counting — because the Senecas have withheld it as part of a feud with New York state.

Making matters worse, more than US$2 million in yearly block grants from the federal government could be in jeopardy if the city’s population dips below 50,000.

The overarching goal is to get people to set up shop here, or at least stick around long enough to spend money.

So, in July last year, when it became legal for same-sex couples to wed in New York state, Niagara Falls organized an attention-grabbing group wedding with the hope of reviving its onetime reputation as “the honeymoon capital” for same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike.

A year later, wedding-related vendors say business is up 20 to 25 percent.

“The general mission is to obtain business. Whether it’s new residents or new visitors, we’re all on the same goal to better Niagara Falls in general,” said John Percy who is president of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp.

City officials say redevelopment of the Niagara Falls Airport, which was barely used until the late 2009 opening of a US$31.5 million terminal, has improved accessibility. The airport went from handling 37,014 passengers in 2009 to 197,208 last year.

Other successes include the 2010 grand opening of a three-block cobblestone stretch, Old Falls Street, which serves to connect the state park with a convention center and hotels and operates as a destination for festivals and shows. Meanwhile, Niagara County Community College plans to open a new culinary center next month after taking over part of a former mall near Niagara Falls State Park and a US$22 million upscale hotel is planned in the same area.

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