In 2002 the State of New York struck a deal with the Seneca Nation of Indians as part of a Compact with the sovereign Indian Nation to bring a ‘Vegas-style’ gaming venue that was to anchor the City’s commercial rebirth. That Compact designated 50-acres of prime real estate in downtown Niagara Falls, upon which the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center sat from 1972 to 2002, for the casino.
That venue, with an event seating capacity of 10,000 people and more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, has never been replaced. In its heydey, it regularly hosted Niagara University basketball games, hosted performers as ranged as Bob Dylan and Tim McGraw, and, for three consecutive years, hosted the Miss USA competition.
The venue was the largest off-season tourist attraction in the city, and generated badly needed business to the area when it was needed most — during the long cold winter when tourists slow to a trickle and most businesses struggle to make it through the winter.
But the architecture was not appreciated and city leaders didn’t appreciate the importance of drawing people downtown off-season so that local small businesses might have been viable year-round.
The building itself stemmed from the era of urban renewal, which has since been badly discredited for its poor urban design, super-blocks, and automobile-orientation. Urban designers now embrace a more human scale, walkability, and vibrancy on the street as hallmarks of good design rather than the boldness of form or intensity of scale.
As such, the building was, perhaps unfairly, blamed by some for contributing to economic decline in Niagara Falls by damaging pedestrian patterns, making it more difficult to travel about the city’s tourist district, and burying a canal that once traversed downtown.
By the time the 2001 negotiations with the Seneca Nation rolled around, the City’s leaders were cash-strapped and looking to unload the operating expenses associated with the facility. The Seneca Gaming Corporation quickly repurposed it into its main gaming floor. The auxiliary event space that they did construction enjoys only floor seating, even for concerts.
Two years after cutting the deal with the Senecas, the State agreed to build the much smaller Niagara Falls Conference Center, which struggles for relevance and events despite its premier location lining Old Falls Street. It lacks the capacities and function of the venue that was lost and never replaced.
The Conference Center is too small to host large regional events, and can’t accommodate a convention. It doesn’t have the elevated seating to host combative sports, basketball games, or concerts, and its concrete floors and exposed utilities hanging above lack the ambiance expected of ballroom banquets that compete for smaller events, like weddings and receptions.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has been calling the Buffalo Convention Center obsolete, arguing that the region needs a new venue to become competitive in the market for national conventions — and even indicating that he is willing to spend $500 million to build it.
Civic leaders have been calling on Poloncarz to pursue a regional collaboration between Erie and Niagara Counties on the project, funding it together while locating it in Niagara Falls, where international brand recognition can be leveraged in the venue’s marketing.
A $1 billion dollar convention center could be financed by each County over 30 years for about $2.7 million a year, at 5%. There could be a political willingness to make those numbers work.
But where in Niagara Falls could we locate such a structure, requiring cavernous exhibition spaces, while improving the walkability, enjoyability, and human-scale of a vibrant urban neighborhood?
Joe Anderson’s Snowpark
Among the several properties that businessman Joe Anderson sold to Empire State Development last year — at the rate-setting price of $1 million per acre — is his former Snowpark, which was home to an artificial ski slope and ice rink. The parcel is in the process of being converted into a surface parking lot.
When combined with the Second Street easement and its vacant lots, the property can accommodate a sizable multi-level convention center with views of the Niagara Gorge. Because it is located between the State Park and the Third Street business district, it could benefit that area’s pedestrian traffic and encourage visitors to venture along an otherwise downtrodden Main Street to the north.
While the site is not large enough to accommodate new parking, it is located immediately across Niagara Street from a city-owned surface parking lot and a city-owned parking garage that is part of the former Rainbow Mall — so there is adequate parking volume off-site, despite being so close to the Falls.
The Sewer Treatment Plant
The City’s defunct sewage treatment plant — which must be rebuilt in order to prevent toxic sewer discharges at the base of the Falls — sits on one of the most pivotal development parcels in the city, with sweeping waterfront views at the gateway to downtown.
It can more than comfortably accommodate a large scale convention venue. The site also includes structures that were once part of a Westinghouse‘s power generating plant — and is ripe for historic preservation.
The Niagara Falls Redevelopment Property
The 140-acre site owned by Howard Milstein‘s Niagara Falls Redevelopment is perhaps the most obvious site for a convention center — because of the vastness of scale. It could easily accommodate the ten acres of surface parking that industry experts call requisite. It’s also expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of uses — perhaps even including outdoor exhibition grounds, public spaces, and an amphitheater.