Now that Empire State Development has acquired a key downtown parcel along Old Falls Street — one in a series of transactions with local businessman Joe Anderson — at the rate-setting price of $1 million per acre — urban planners are prodding the newly named regional president, Anthony Vilardo, to pursue innovative projects focused on high-quality urban design and vibrant streetscapes.
They point to Las Vegas’ Fremont Street as a potential development model for Old Falls Street’s rebirth, as a successful example of revitalizing a historic tourist district. That city covered a four-block-long stretch of its historic main street with an open-air canopy that has rebranded ‘Old Vegas’.
It’s a model that could work here, perhaps with rebranded as “Nikola Tesla Street“, in homage to the Serbian-born engineer, inventor, and futurist known best for his contributions to the design of alternating current electrical systems.
In recent years much has been done to encourage pedestrian foot traffic along Old Falls Street, between the State Park and the Third Street business district, but without a critical mass of densely aligned storefronts, the foot traffic — though immense — is often fleeting.
Of particular concern is the superblock located between First and Third Streets, abutted to the South by the Niagara Falls Conference Center (an underutilized but glassy street fixture), and to the north by an opaque block-long wall-space (formerly housing Anderson’s discount t-shirt and souvenir shop).
But that stretch of road is the natural pedestrian conduit between the State Park and the Seneca Niagara Casino. With a critical mass of storefronts, the stretch could easily compete with Canada’s Clifton Hill — as evidenced by TGIFridays and Rainforest Cafe located in the Sheraton Hotel located along the stretch.
The Conference Center never had a chance to be successful and was a redesigned assemblage of three existing structures that occupied the site prior to its opening in 2004. It still struggles to book events despite its premier location, too small to host large regional events and without the elevated seating to host combative sports, basketball games, or concerts.
Its concrete floors and exposed utilities hanging above the main event space lack the ambiance expected of ballroom banquets that compete for smaller events, like weddings and receptions.
Real estate experts argue that the Conference Center could easily be repurposed to accommodate national chain restaurant venues in a series of densely aligned storefronts — perhaps housing nationally recognized chains like Morton’s Steakhouse, Dave & Busters, Planet Hollywood, and The Cheesecake Factory — in order to build out a central pedestrian entertainment district that competes with Clifton Hill and Victoria Street on the opposite side of the border.
John Percy, who leads Destination Niagara USA, is the subject of much criticism for his lackluster management of that convention and visitors bureau, formerly known as the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation (NTCC), the official tourism promotion agency and a ‘full-service’ destination marketing organization serving Niagara Falls and Niagara County.
Prior to that role, Percy served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the NTCC and spent 15 years in shopping center marketing and management in both Western New York and Detroit, Michigan.
In 2010, some wanted Percy prosecuted for taking a $25,000 bonus payment that was more than twice the $11,812 that he was due. He agreed to pay it back in monthly installments but retained his position — raising more than a few eyebrows.
In 2014 it was reported that Percy had spent thousands of dollars at the agency on personal messages and tuxedo rentals. His critics have long called for a leadership change at the agency — which is most responsible for the city’s stunning void of hotel bookings.
According to Smith Travel Research, since January 2018, vacancy rates have spiked in Niagara Falls by 5% year-over-year, which have renewed calls for his departure.