The city’s lack of public assembly facilities, cultural attractions, and weather-protected family destinations (such as indoor waterparks, museums, and other amenities) has been preventing its emergence as a year-round destination.
Every year, during the City’s short 90 day summer season, millions of tourists from around the world flock to Niagara Falls to marvel at the natural wonder and to enjoy time with one’s companion, friends, or family. It’s a blessing that’s been bestowed on us, like few places on earth.
But Niagara Falls has been unable to emerge as a successful year-round destination — and low-wage workers trapped in this economic cycle are hurt most. There are too few opportunities for regular Niagarians to enter the workforce and to enjoy stable employment, because of seasonal layoffs that come at the close of the season.
The City aspires to become a year-round destination, where guest volumes allow downtown businesses to profit even in the depths of a long and cold winter. But critics on both ends of the political spectrum agree: the City doesn’t have the tools and infrastructure to evolve.
Attracting visitors — who stay at the City’s hotels, dine in its restaurants, drink in its bars, and frequent its entertainment venues — requires infrastructure that the City lacks and can’t afford to build by itself. Programable public assembly facilities are critical to cultivating an entertainment-oriented economy, ranging from the small theatre house to a high-caliber event center.
Where is New York State?
For decades, New York State has funded a slew of exhibition and event spaces across the State, contributing to capital construction costs, with counties and municipal governments supporting facilities’ operating budgets.
While the facilities managed to breakeven, some lesser venues where event volume is lacking require some support — most often in the form of municipally-funded convention and visitors bureaus that promote the destination and the venue. For some destinations — like New York City, the facility generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual economic impact. In others, these facilities are considered part of the infrastructure required to fill hotel rooms.
With Buffalo seeking a new convention center, upgrades to the Buffalo Bills’ New Era Feild, and a long list of other Buffalo Billion projects, Niagara County residents are wondering when Governor Andrew Cuomo will fulfill New York State’s promise to replace the facility that it took from the community to enable the Seneca Nation’s 2002 gaming compact. At that time, it was promised that the State would fund a new facility from the more than $1 billion it received from the Seneca Nation while the exclusivity payments were in effect.
It’s a standard practice (far beyond New York State) that local governments — including municipalities — receive public operating support. Some of America’s largest metropolitan areas have invested heavily in public assembly facilities, including stadiums, arenas, and convention facilities.
NRG Stadium in Houston, for instance, was creatively financed. The public-funded more than half of the construction cost by increasing the bed tax and creating surcharges for attractions, auto rentals, parking — which could be similarly implemented in Niagara Falls, given its strength as a tourist destination. Those in the know believe that increasing the bed tax and parking fees, along with creating a surcharge for admission tickets to attractions, would generate enough cash flow to underwrite such a facility.
For two cities, the event industry is an extraordinarily lucrative anchor for their tourist-based economies: Las Vegas and Orlando, which both host gargantuan public facilities. But Vegas has dominated the industry with a slew of event spaces managed by large gaming venues, like Mandalay Bay and the Sands Expo and Convention Center — which drive their traffic with events like concerts, boxing, and mixed martial arts. For everyone else, public-private partnerships are needed to enable such capital intensive financing.
Many in the Niagara Falls business community have argued that, like it or not, New York State needs to realize that it must become a more equitable partner with the City of Niagara Falls and the Seneca Nation of Indians. New York State would be the beneficiary of economic growth, enhancing revenues at the State Park, increase concession sales, parking fees, Maid of the Mist revenues, and its other attractions.
It would behoove Western New York to seek large scale public investments in Niagara Falls, where they believe the tourism industry is the region’s most extraordinary growth opportunity and constitutes the region’s ‘lowest hanging development fruit’.
In fact, many on the American side of the border are feeling the pressure to keep up with their Canadian counterparts, where Fallsview Casino has been investing in event spaces.
Brad Paisley is the opening act at Fallsview’s new Entertainment Centre, a 5,000 seat venue that had been set to open on April 2nd. Prior to COVID-shutdowns, Paul Anka, Larry the Cable Guy, ZZ Top, Cheeptrick, and Kesha were to populate that stage through early June with even bigger names expected to come.
The resort casino is doing well — generating $85 million USD in net revenue, quarterly. Fallsview boasts 320 shows each year at its Avalon Theater, a 1,500 seat space that’s hosted Steven Tyler, Adam Sandler, Kelly Clarkson, Roger Daltrey, Pitbull, Tim McGraw, and John Legend.
Now adding to Fallsview’s competitive edge is the new Scotiabank Centre, located across the street, which now features more than 300,000 square feet of event spaces located within walking distance to over 5,000 nationally-branded hotel rooms.
In contrast, the Niagara Falls Conference and Event Center is not even a convention center. It’s a very nice conference venue that’s suitable for a small market but does not fit the bill for a world-class destination such as Niagara Falls. The few events that the venue does attract are hyper-local in nature, which is business that would otherwise be accommodated by the City’s hotel and banquet industry. As far as economic development goes, the facility’s impact is muted at best — notwithstanding the obvious opportunity cost.
Its offerings include a 32,200-square-foot exhibition space, a 10,500-square-foot ballroom and 22,000 square feet of meeting space — which limits it’s client base to regional fraternal associations, religious groups, and special events. It can’t accommodate national industry trade shows and the types of large industry gatherings for which economic development officials lust.
A facility that would allow for minor league hockey or boxed lacrosse franchise and collegiate athletics would better serve the destination, with nearly unlimited potential mixed martial arts, demolition derbies, and other special events. It’s been long rumored that the Seneca Nation has wanted to invest in a lacrosse team (though those rumors were somewhat subsided after Six Nations businessman Curt Styres, the owner of the Rochester Knighthawks, sold that team to Pegula Sports and Entertainment a year and a half ago).
Others believe that Niagara University‘s basketball team can return to its past glory if it only played at a larger facility, suitable for nationally televised events. The University has wanted to develop its NCAA basketball program, which could generate a profit for the University. The university would benefit from better recruitment classes by enabling NU to promote its athletics through regional and national broadcasts. If the team is able to perform at a competitive level and it is marketed aggressively, it could be a wintertime anchor for Niagara students and Western New York residents.
While Canada’s Niagara Penninsula is the most often-mentioned prospective expansion market for the NHL, locating an NHL team in Hamilton, St. Catherines, or Niagara Falls would undoubtedly encroach on the market reach of the Buffalo Sabres. But they posit that a minor league hockey team could be a viable anchor tenant.
The Niagara Falls Event and Conference Center is also unable to host a Broadway (or even off-Broadway) theater production, a concert of the Buffalo Philharmonic, or a popular music headliner.
It’s become increasingly apparent in recent months that Niagara Falls’ lack of off-season tourist volume has profoundly constrained investment, job creation, and redevelopment. The City needs help filling the vast volume of empty hotel rooms that sit fallow Niagara Falls for the long and cold off-season — and the business community thinks that a fulsome multi-purpose, mixed-use facility is the infrastructure that could turn the city into a year-round destination.
Even compared to other venues across New York State, Niagara Falls pales in comparison, despite the conference center being located within walking distance to over 3,000 rooms.
New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center
In 2016, Governor Cuomo committed $1.5 billion to expand the Javits Center to 3 million square feet, which is underway. That announcement came just two years after Cuomo spent more than $463 million renovating the existing facility.
The Javits Center is New York State’s largest convention center and is operated and maintained by the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, a New York State public-benefit corporation and a subsidiary of Empire State Development. The convention center has a total area space of 1,800,000 square feet and has 840,000 square feet of total exhibit space.
The New York Convention Center Operating Corporation (NYCCOC) – not to be confused with the New York Convention Center Development Corporation (“CCDC”), which is a subsidiary of New York State Urban Development Corporation (known more widely as Empire State Development).
- 410,000-square-foot Upper Exhibition Hall
- 250,000-square-foot Lower Exhibition Hall
- 100,000-square-foot Special Events Hall (seating capacity 3,800)
- 63,000-square-foot cafeteria/restaurant/lounge
- 75,000-square-foot concourse
- 65,000-square-foot Crystal Palace
- 60,000-square-foot Galleria
- 23,400-square-foot River Pavilion
- 102 meeting rooms
New York City’s Madison Square Garden
Madison Square Garden hosts more than 320 events each year. The Garden is used for professional ice hockey (home to the New York Rangers) and basketball (home to the New York Knicks), as well as boxing, concerts, ice shows, circuses, professional wrestling and other forms of sports and entertainment. Including two major renovations, its total construction cost is approximately $1.1 billion, and it has been ranked as one of the 10 most expensive stadium venues ever built.
Uniondale’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (commonly known as the Nassau Coliseum or The Coliseum) is a multi-purpose indoor arena used for sporting events, concerts, large exhibitions, and trade shows. It boasts 44,000 square feet at the main arena and 60,000 at its Expo Center. In 2015, the arena was temporarily closed for a major $145 million renovation which was completed in April 2017.
Forest City Ratner offered to finance the entire cost of refurbishing the Coliseum and pay the county, which owns the building, 8% of gross revenue and 12.75% percent of parking revenue, with a minimum guaranteed payment of $4 million a year — a rental amount that would rise 10 percent every five years during the 34 years stipulated by the lease.
Brooklyn’s Barclays Center
The Barclays Center is a multi-purpose indoor arena on the former Atlantic Yards in downtown Brooklyn. In addition to major league hockey and basketball, the arena also hosts concerts, conventions and entertainment events. It’s the most expensive arena in the United States, costing more than $1 billion to construct (even after $350 million was cut from the budget during construction in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis).
The City of New York contributed $130 million to the project, and the State of New York provided $305 million in public subsidies to the larger Atlantic Yards redevelopment, the $4.9 billion redevelopment project for which the Barclay’s Center anchors. The arena, proposed in 2004 when real estate developer Bruce Ratner purchased the Nets for $300 million as the first step of the process to build a new home for the team.
Groundbreaking for construction occurred on March 11, 2010, and the arena opened on September 21, 2012. The arena is owned by the State of New York’s Empire State Development authority through a public entity named the Brooklyn Arena Local Development Corporation.
Queens’ Citi Feild
Citi Field has been home to the New York Mets, in Queens, New York, since the 2009 MLB season. The ballpark broke ground in 2006 when the Mets home was still Shea Stadium, which stood on Citi Feild’s current parking lot. The park has seats for up to 41,000 fans to watch a game. The facility had a total construction cost of $850 million, of which $400 million was provided by the State.
Newark’s Prudential Center
Prudential Center is a multi-purpose indoor arena in the central business district of Newark, New Jersey, which opened in 2007 and is the home of the New Jersey Devils and the men’s NCAA basketball program of Seton Hall University, known as the Seton Hall Pirates. The arena seats 16,514 patrons for hockey games and 18,711 for basketball.
The arena was built amidst financial concerns and years of speculation that the Devils would relocate. The Prudential Center has played a major role in the revitalization of downtown Newark. The arena is located two blocks from Newark Penn Station in downtown Newark, which makes it easily accessible via New Jersey Transit, PATH, Newark Light Rail, and Amtrak.
Financial issues, though, threatened to halt the deal. On January 24, 2006, the Devils averted having the project canceled by submitting a guarantee in writing that the team would contribute $100 million to the arena, one day before their deadline.
Though construction was well underway, in late summer 2006, Cory Booker, who had recently taken office as Mayor of Newark, promised to reevaluate the deal and considered backing out. In October, Booker conceded there would be “a first-class arena built in the city of Newark, whether we like it or not”.
The City of Newark pledged to contribute $210 million to the construction of the arena, using settlement money from its lease dispute over underpaid rent for use of Newark Liberty International Airport with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Devils paid for the remainder of the cost. Thus, no new direct taxpayer funding was required for the construction of the arena.
Some taxpayer dollars, however, were spent on infrastructure improvements. These improvements were necessary for both the new arena and proposed private development surrounding that arena.
Prudential Financial purchased the naming rights to the stadium in January 2007 for $105.3 million over 20 years, reducing the city’s cost for the project. The arena had been referred to as “Newark Arena” before the deal. In addition to its formal name, Prudential Center was immediately nicknamed “The Rock” after Prudential’s corporate logo.
Construction on the arena was completed in October 2007. The estimated final cost of the arena’s construction is $380 million.
Utica’s Nexus Center
Early last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed $22 million in Upstate Revitalization Initiative grant funding to the Upper Mohawk Valley Memorial Auditorium Authority for the construction of the Nexus Center, a world-class, tournament-based sports complex in downtown Utica. The Nexus Center will be a 169,440-square-foot facility to be utilized primarily for ice hockey, box lacrosse, soccer, and other field sports, and is expected to draw competitive youth teams from across the U.S and Canada.
“The success of our downtown communities is vital to regional economic growth and this new world-class sports complex will help transform Utica and drive tourism in the area,” Governor Cuomo said. “The Nexus Center is part of our bold vision to make downtown Utica a destination for visitors from across the globe and at the same time generate exciting new opportunities for Mohawk Valley residents.”
This $44-million facility will be adjacent to the Adirondack Bank Center, the home of the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets, Utica College men’s and women’s hockey programs, and the Utica Jr. Comets youth hockey organization. The ice can be easily transformed into field-based surfaces to attract sports that can be performed on a turf playing surface. The Nexus Center will feature more than 25 locker rooms, commercial office space, college classroom space, retail space, food and beverage services, and other multi-purpose training space.
The Nexus Center is projected to host 24 hockey and 24 lacrosse tournaments each year and will see a projected 322,560 annual visitors who will spend more than $26 million a year during their stay in the Mohawk Valley Region.
The time for transformational investment is now.
Like it was for Buffalo, it’s long past time for the State to announce its support of the Niagara Billion — focused on elevating Niagara Falls into a fulsome cultural and entertainment destination. Public assembly infrastructure — of all types and styles — are required for that economy to emerge.
Enabling those industries to operate and program entertainment, sports, and cultural events will liven the City — and the State of New York stands to benefit first and to benefit most. New York State would stand to gain most — in revenues from the State Park, parking fees, licensing of attractions like Maid of Mist, the Thruway tolls, and sales tax collections.
In fact, the State profits greatly, all while avoiding the burdensome costs of local infrastructure, like roads, police, emergency services, public works, and sanitation services.