NIAGARA FALLS -- They called it "The Big Idea" when first unveiled in 1998.
A new company promised to redevelop a blighted downtown swath of Niagara Falls into a bustling tourist mecca that included a gambling casino, two new 12-story hotels, a Rockefeller Center-type ice skating rink and specialty shops.
Today, nearly a decade after the city gave the company exclusive development rights, the casino has been built, but by the Seneca Nation of Indians. And the only outward sign of development on the 142-acre tract is a snow-covered building foundation.
Under its agreement, the company is obligated to complete $110 million in development by the end of this year, city officials say.
Instead, Niagara Falls Redevelopment has asked the city for a new agreement that throws out all previous obligations and includes no new development projects, costs or timelines, according to two city councilmen.
The redevelopment company has submitted a proposed contract to the city that, as it stands, would not penalize the company for failing to meet development goals, acting Corporation Counsel Damon DeCastro said Wednesday.
"I can't force them to do anything . . .," DeCastro said. "Not in this [proposed] agreement."
Council members interviewed in recent days were initially receptive to the five-page proposal, but Councilmen Lewis Rotella and Charles Walker said Wednesday night that, after looking at the document, they have serious reservations.
"To me it puts the city in a worse position than what the city is in right now because it doesn't call for any development," Walker said. "There's nothing good for the city in this agreement.
"I don't think we can do an agreement that goes beyond three or four years without something being built."
The mayor and the city's top lawyer say they are hopeful about future development on the tract but want to be cautious.
"I'm satisfied with the level of cleanup," Mayor Vince Anello said, but "I don't believe any of us feel our expectations have been met."
The company has demolished and cleared large portions of the tract bounded by John B. Daly Boulevard, Niagara Street, Portage Road and Buffalo Avenue, and many neighbors are pleased.
The foundation laid on 10th Street is meant to be a $12 million, 25,000-square-foot entertainment complex, which Niagara Falls Redevelopment officials have said could include office space, restaurants, retail establishments and an art gallery.
Company officials said they are actively seeking tenants who would want to lease space in the planned building.
"We're doing everything by the book," said Roger Trevino, executive vice president of the development company.
Council Chairman Robert Anderson Jr. said he met for three hours earlier this month with company representatives, including Niagara Falls Redevelopment President Anthony Bergamo, who Anderson said vowed new construction would come within 90 days.
"They're going to start doing what they promised with development," Anderson said. "I'm totally optimistic until proven otherwise."
Walker says he isn't so sure.
One $12 million building is a far cry from the dream of the flamboyant Canadian businessman who came to city officials nine years ago with a dream.
Edwin A. "Eddy" Cogan unveiled his plan in January 1998 to a packed house in the former city convention center. He talked of a bustling project dominated by hotels, conference space and an ice rink surrounded by specialty shops.
Cogan brought financial muscle to the project in August 1998 in the form of New York City billionaire developer Howard Milstein, an old friend and co-owner of the New York Islanders hockey team.
James C. Galie, mayor at the time, and his City Council were impressed. They gave Cogan and his Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. exclusive rights to develop 142 acres.
Cogan died in October 2003 at age 69, leaving his company struggling to make any headway in redeveloping the downtown core. Company leaders said they still have big plans for the Falls and they'll soon be more specific about them, but they've told city leaders they need more time.
Lately, the company has focused its energy on assembling and clearing as much of the development tract as possible to meet the terms of the agreement it first made with the city in the late 1990s and updated in 2003. During the last two years, related companies have purchased more than 400 properties, many at well above their assessed value.
DeCastro said company officials told him they've spent $40 million on the purchase and clearing of land so far.
Some property owner holdouts say the company has tried to intimidate them into selling. The company has denied those allegations, and city officials have downplayed them.
Company attorney John P. Bartolomei said Niagara Falls Redevelopment is ready to "get about doing some things" now that an associated company has purchased a 13-acre piece of land that runs through the middle of the tract. "I think the purpose of the new [contract] was to make it more concise and more specific as to what's left to do," Bartolomei said.
DeCastro, the city's acting corporation counsel, said there are no specific development projects described in the new contract, and he would prefer that some be included.
Several Council members agreed. Rotella said he also would like to see a new contract include a performance bond.
All five Council members received copies of the proposed agreement this week. Morton H. Abramowitz, the former Niagara County attorney the Council uses for outside legal advice, said he is redrafting the proposed agreement "to meet the needs of both the city and NFR."
Abramowitz, who declined to give specifics, said that the proposed agreement was written in a way that would "supplant all prior agreements" and that his main goal in rewriting it is "to make sure nothing is canceled that is a benefit to the city."
Walker said he is happy the redevelopment company has begun to clear land, and he believes the company has the financial backing to start new development.
The Seneca Gaming Corp. made an $18 million down payment to a company controlled by Niagara Falls Redevelopment last August on a former splash park near the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel. The redevelopment company acquired the splash park in 2003 for $3 million, under a separate agreement with the city that settled several lawsuits, and is seeking another $75 million in court for the property.
The mayor and city's top lawyer said they still want to work with Niagara Falls Redevelopment -- if it means new construction and new jobs for the city. "Every contract has an element of good faith," DeCastro said. "I don't know why NFR hasn't performed . . . but we're still looking to achieve the original goals of economic development."
Bill Michelmore of the News Niagara Bureau contributed to this report.