Have the politics finally lined up for a (U.S.) Niagara Falls revival?

Niagara Falls (AP Photo/David Duprey)
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NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.—Four decades ago, Niagara Falls, Ontario, decided to invest in tourism, and Niagara Falls, N.Y., with its powerful industries (hydropower, chemical production) scoffed.

Now, on the New York side of the Niagara River, the road to the Rainbow Bridge passes closed-down storefronts and the parking deck of the shuttered mall. There’s not much reason to stop here. The Seneca Niagara Casino, a glassy tower of blue and green, beckons 18-year-olds with a bleak message—you, too, can gamble! But the other Niagara Falls has a casino, too, and across the river, a Ferris wheel beckons.

Cross the bridge into Canada and turn toward the falls. On the right is Clifton Hill, where visiting children beg to be taken. With its Margaritaville, mini-golf and movie theaters, its arcade, haunted house and hot dogs, it looks like the loudest, best carnival you’ve ever been to, only brighter and better, as if it dropped straight of a Baz Luhrmann movie. Nothing on this side of the river feels quite real. The welcome center resembles a castle. The Niagara River’s turquoise water makes the falls themselves seem like a giant mini-golf-course water trap. Like any good water feature, they can be turned off in an emergency.

But during tourist season, which, according to a U.S.-Canada treaty, begins April 1, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., a minimum of 100,000 cubic feet of water plunge over the edge each second. And on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, even in early April, hundreds of people—couples from Europe, families from South Asia, a wrestling team of young Canadian men—have come to the Canadian side of the river to peer over snow-covered banks into the chasm below.

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With its industry all but gone and its population dipping so fast it no longer technically qualifies as a city, Niagara Falls, N.Y., has considered anew that tourists might have money to spend. At this point in history, the falls are, essentially, a majestic power plant in a mediocre state park. But it’s a power plant that eight million people come to visit each year.

All Niagara Falls, N.Y., has to do is convince those tourists to stay on America’s side of the river. And New York State is spending tens of millions of dollars to try to make that happen.

Once, Niagara Falls, N.Y. was as full as hucksters as the Canadian side. By the time Frederick Law Olmsted and other rich romantics started pushing for a “Free Niagara” in the 1860s, salesmen had built souvenir shops, tollbooths, and fences around the gorge and were charging for a peep. Even after Free Niagara’s fit of conservationism cleared the gorge’s edge and created America’s first state park, the city was still full up with tourist-pleasing, honky-tonk attractions.

Not that city leaders cared, at that point. The editor of the Niagara Gazette once pronounced that he’d “be willing to see the falls dry up entirely if it would bring us the wealth and population that a dozen more factories would put in here,” according to Ginger Strand, the author of Inventing Niagara.

“People look at Niagara Falls, N.Y., and think it was a failure of urban planning,” said Daniel Hess, an associate professor of urban planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It was planned as an industrial city that happened to be next to Niagara Falls.”

This history of nearsighted planning begins, not surprisingly, with Robert Moses, who cut deep into the city’s tax rolls by replacing private hydropower companies with the state-run New York Power Authority and stuck a parkway between the city and the gorge.

“Growing up, we waited there in the bushes by the side of the road to make sure there were no state police coming. Then we’d run across the road, and go down to the gorge,” said Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster. “Now I’m the third house from the gorge, and I still hop the fence over there. If I get arrested, it’s going to be really embarrassing.”

Moses wasn’t the only ambitious, aggressive know-it-all to do poorly by Niagara Falls. In the late ’60s, Mayor E. Dent Lackey presided over the downtown’s demolition. In that empty space, the city built a huge convention center (1974), a giant arboretum (1977), a Native American cultural center, popularly known as the Turtle Building (1978), and a mall (1982), along with new hotels. When this version of downtown failed to thrive, the city entertained plans for a bigger “Fantasyland” mall in the 1980s and a casino in the 1990s.

In both cases, the private companies that peddled these visions failed to follow through.

In the second case, one of the would-be saviors, Howard P. Milstein, a generous donor to Governor Andrew Cuomo and chairman of the state’s Thruway Authority, managed to do as much lasting damage to the city as Moses had.

Milstein was born into the real-estate business; he also runs a private bank his family established decades ago. In the late ’90s, he bought half of Niagara Falls Redevelopment, and took over the company entirely in 2003. The city had given N.F.R. exclusive development rights to more than 140 acres of land, right behind where the casino stands today. The company was supposed invest $110 million on developing the area. Over time, N.F.R. has acquired that land from public and private owners—and done little to develop it.

At the beginning of May, there was a brief spurt of speculation that Milstein might make a bid on the Buffalo Bills, and, though the developer said he would not try to buy the team, he did float the idea that his Niagara Falls holdings might be a nice site for a sports stadium.

FROM MOSES TO MILSTEIN, THESE FAILED initiatives had a common goal—attracting tourists. Bringing people from the Falls, into the city, and keeping them there.

That’s the goal city and state leaders are pushing today, too.

Dyster, the mayor, has sold Niagara Falls to three different governors as “a big billboard you can’t take down,” and Cuomo, he said, “gets it.”

The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council (with an assist from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.) has identified three key economic opportunities for this region, and tourism is one of them. In the next few years, the Niagara Falls and New York State governments will support the construction of fancy new hotels, tear out Moses’ highway, build a new train station, and try to sell visitors on experiencing Nature in the middle of the same city that dumped toxic chemicals into the Love Canal.

The state is contributing to this vision through a local economic development agency, grants to the city, improvements made to the state parks, and a share of the Buffalo Billion—with the aim of channelling some of Niagara’s tourism spillover into Buffalo and beyond.

Quite apart from the potential economic payoff, Cuomo has some special political incentive to “get it.” In 2010, the governor carried every region of the state except for western New York, where Carl Paladino did quite well. And the revitalization of Rust-Belt cities, it might be noted, is a challenge facing some crucial swing states.

Swing-state voters, as it happens, make up a large portion of visitors to Niagara Falls. According to a 2009 visitor survey, after New York, Ohio sent the most people (almost a tenth of all American visitors) to the park. Another survey found that, among overnight visitors, travelers most commonly came from Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan.

There won’t be much to show for New York’s investments in Niagara by 2016. But it would be a considerable political triumph, if, five years from now, New York were seen to have leveraged tourism to help a post-industrial city rebound.

The idea’s not crazy. As Eddie Friel, an expert-in-residence at Niagara University put it, “tourism is a proper industry,” and if the goal is to create jobs and wealth, “tourism can do that.”

In the economically
hard-hit Scotland of the 1980s, Friel helped engineer the transformation of Glasgow, which, he says, “was considered a vile slum of a city,” into one of the world’s top tourism destinations. And Niagara Falls has an advantage that Glasgow didn’t—a built-in reason to
go there.

“If you have 8 million people in a park,” said Friel, “you develop the city street by street from the park in order to bring people into the city.”

ACTUALLY, YOU MIGHT WANT TO DO A LITTLE WORK on the park, too.

The New York Times said it was shabby,” said Dyster (not just shabby—“underfinanced,” too), “and they went crazy in Albany, started making all these investments.”

The State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is the middle of a $25 million initiative intended “to assure that the park’s public use facilities match the grandeur of the Niagara River, Falls and Gorge.”

This spring, parts of the park looked like a construction site, and will for a while yet: Twenty-five million dollars might get the park part of the way to shabby chic, but certainly not to “grand.” For example, the park’s main pedestrian bridges have been shored up for the past decade with a “temporary” steel truss that blocks tourists’ views of the incredibly impressive rapids above the falls.

Parks says the bridges are “significantly deteriorated and in need of repair.” In 2004, a large piece of concrete plopped from one arch into the river.

Fixing the bridges isn’t even part of the initial $25 million outlay. That will cost more than $30 million—at a minimum— and construction isn’t slated to start until 2016.