Planning a Niagara revival for years, it’s time for Cuomo to help Milstein, Trevino

Howard Milstein is a renowned philanthropist, and is among the most accomplished New York financiers of his generation.

No area businessman has been more dogged in his pursuit of Niagara Falls’ economic revival than Roger Trevino, the former NFL sports agent from Texas who now manages Manhattan billionaire Howard Milstein‘s real estate interests in the Cataract City.

That 143-acre tract of land along Buffalo Avenue and John Daley Boulevard is, indisputably, the City’s preeminent development opportunity — for the vastness of its space, and the primacy of its location.

Local activists have been calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to purchase a 143-acre parcel of land from Howard Milstein’s firm, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, and to begin lease negotiations with Buffalo Bills’ owners Terry and Kim Pegula.

Trevino has vetted hundreds of proposals for the site.  But like all developers in Niagara Falls, it has been difficult to muster the political will necessary to get something built that simultaneously meets the economics of Niagara Falls’ seasonal tourist volumes, while meeting the magnitude and scale of ambitions at City Hall.

Most concepts proposed for the site require enormous capital intensity.  While tourism-oriented businesses do prolifically well during the City’s short four-month season from late spring through early autumn, business dries to a trickle during the long and cold winter season. Identifying business models that can remain profitable all year long has been a difficult challenge that few developers dare try.

Without a critical mass of development, the City remains unable to emerge as a year-round world-class destination.  Empire State Development has been unwilling to address this issue of seasonality in any substantial way and, perhaps even more consequentially, hasn’t been willing to engage with Milstein in partnership for fear of the political repercussions. Milstein remains controversial in Niagara Falls, but most observers believe that would change quickly if he were to take a more forward and less content posture.

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Trevino spearheaded the City’s effort to host Nik Wallenda’s rope-walk over the Falls in 2012.

But some say now the landscape has shifted sufficiently to execute a major project.  Chris Schoepflin, Empire State Development’s former Western Region President, has been recruited to serve as Pegula Sports and Entertainment‘s chief lobbyist.  He is widely thought to be tasked with securing Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s support for a new Buffalo Bills Stadium.  But Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz remains staunchly opposed to a new stadium — at a time when Niagara County Republican Chairman Rich Andres has been clamoring for it to be built in downtown Niagara Falls.

Paul Tronolone, the newly appointed leader of Empire State Development’s Niagara regional office, is said to be ‘energetically supportive’ of locating an NFL stadium on the Milstein site — as is Trevino, who of course is no stranger to the National Football League, even serving as Jim Kelly‘s longtime agent.

In discussing the site, it doesn’t take long for Trevino to note its proximity to the Canadian market — where 12 million people reside in Southern Ontario without an NFL franchise.  GO Transit recently announced that it would extend its commuter rail service to Niagara Falls, ON, and Mayor Paul Dyster is lobbying Canadian officials to extend that service across the border to his new $43 million Amtrak station located on Main Street.

Buffalo Niagara Convention Center June 2017
Fiscal conservatives want Erie County to get out of the convention center business altogether.  They contend that the facility is too small to be competitive nationally and only competes with private banquet and conference halls managed by local hotels and restauranteurs.

At the same time, Erie County Democrats have been clamoring for a new convention center, lambasting the current facility as obsolete and uncompetitive in the national market for convention venues.  The building’s brutalist architecture is not popular among design critics.  Many downtown residents would like to see the structure sold to Wegmans, so that the County can fully exit the convention business. Poloncarz, however, has called for spending $500 million to construct a new facility that he imagines would resemble the venue in Charlotte, NC.

Area developers are in almost universal agreement that Niagara Falls would be a more marketable and competitive destination for large scale conventions, relative to Buffalo or other locations in Upstate New York.  Many argue — including, we are told, Carl Paladino — that Erie and Niagara Counties should partner on the project.  With Erie County willing to contribute $500 million in debt financing that Poloncarz has already expressed support for, coupled with proportional financing by Niagara County, the region could enjoy a better, more catalytic, more competitive venue for large scale conventions if the two governments were willing to collaborate.

If Erie County loses the Bills to Niagara County, then Erie is likely to enjoy savings on the Stadium’s operating costs that could be $3 million a year.  At 5% interest amortized over 30 years, that annual payment would finance nearly $560 million in capital investment.  Some political operatives argue that moving the Bills and the Convention Center to Niagara County would allow Poloncarz to brand himself a fiscal conservative in an election year.

Urban designers hope that a Convention Center, financed by Erie and Niagara Counties with the State of New York, will generate off-peak tourist volume that will make it easier for small tourist-oriented businesses to survive in the offseason. The vast size of the parcel would allow for a large scale convention venue surrounded by outdoor exhibition grounds, capable of hosting festivals and the largest of national gatherings.






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