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Cataract? What cataract? Niagara's council considers proposal to deck the Falls with boards of folly

Niagara Falls, N.Y., always has wanted some of what Niagara Falls, Ont., has. It hopes for more of Ontario's tourists. If one City Council proposal goes through, it may just wind up with some of Ontario's honky-tonk.

City Councilman Sam Fruscione wants to lift the city's prohibition on new billboards. According to him, it'll give business another marketing tool.

Fruscione's resolution allows five more rooftop billboards in the downtown tourist area, in addition to 10 regular and 10 rooftop billboards on properties that front commercial districts on Pine Avenue or Niagara Falls Boulevard. Downtown Niagara Falls, the councilman maintains, does not look like a tourist town. As if that's an undeniably bad thing.

What Niagara Falls should look like is a vibrant, attractive place not only to visit but to live. There is nothing inherently wrong with billboards -- a time-tested expression of advertising -- but siting is everything, and greeting tourists with an abundance of splashy and distracting billboards says tourist trap, not tourist town. And unless Niagara Falls wants to try to get into the business of curbing speech and expression, content and taste will not be totally within municipal control.

Fruscione insists the billboards would be tastefully done with motion or graphics included. He recalls images of Falls Street during the 1960s and 1970s with billboards on roofs, when all of downtown Niagara Falls was lit up and the downtown area looked more like a tourist area. He is too young to recall a much earlier era, when boards and signage actually walled off views of the falls and hucksters charged tourists to peep through the knotholes.

Niagara Falls, Ont., Lake George, Las Vegas, any of the major tourist towns are not so prohibitive in allowing businesses to promote themselves, the councilman said. He envisions most of the billboards on Route 62, posted along Niagara Falls Boulevard, and placed atop buildings downtown -- not on land with potential for business development, nor in residential areas.

Fruscione, however, failed to consult with the Niagara Falls Planning Board, instead relying on input from members of the neophyte Tourism Advisory Board to write the proposed amendment. The Planning Board should raise some legitimate concerns -- including the fact that long-term billboard leases make it difficult to attract business or site buildings on the host property.

Technology has caught up with billboards and, instead of two I-beams for support, many have round, single poles. But they remain devices designed to dominate lines of sight, and too many of them would be counterproductive to the city's goal of presenting Niagara Falls as a pleasant place to visit.

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