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New development chief sees vast potential in Niagara Falls Kay shocked by blight and vacant buildings

After 30 years of experience in economic development, Peter F. Kay looks at more than data and statistics. He looks for what he calls intangibles.

"People in Niagara Falls must develop a positive attitude," the city's new economic development director said Monday. "If the attitude of a community is positive, we can achieve anything. People become more creative. Investment dollars begin to pour in and one dynamic leads to another."

Kay began his job at City Hall a week ago and has already met with several state and city leaders whose cooperation he seeks to help turn the city around.

"Niagara Falls has such potential, but we must all work together," he said, acknowledging a lack of cooperation that has held the city back in the past.

Even his own position -- or specifically the $100,000 salary -- was opposed by Councilman Robert Anderson, who called it "ludicrous."

A fund established by a group of anonymous donors -- and channeled through the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo -- has agreed to pay $60,000 of the annual salary during Mayor Paul A. Dyster's first term.

Kay last visited Niagara Falls about 15 years ago. When Senior City Planner Thomas J. DeSantis took him for a drive around the city when he first got here for his job, Kay said, he was shocked at the abandoned buildings and downtown blight, particularly on Main Street.

The closest he's come to the run-down nature of Niagara Falls was in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he was planning director for Harrison County some 30 years ago.

In West Virginia, an abandoned glass factory, built in 1916, has been designated a brownfield site. Kay created an economic development agency and got federal and state funding to clean it up and turned it into a business park.

In Niagara Falls, Kay will spearhead a plan to reopen the Globe Metallurgical plant on Highland Avenue and turn it into a factory to produce solar panels, all part of Dyster's "green energy" initiative. That initiative also includes a $245 million proposal to build an ethanol plant in the city.

In addition to concentrating on industrial projects, Kay intends to focus on tourism, namely the economic impact it has -- and could have, once fully unleashed.

The current data on tourism, and just about anything else to do with economic impact in the city, is pretty well out of date, he said.

On paper, when developers and investors look at incomes, real estate values, unemployment and other raw facts of the city's make-up, "Niagara Falls comes across as less attractive than other cities," Kay said.

"We need to reassess and examine all the data, identify our strengths and counter the less attractive characteristics with more accurate information," he explained.

One aspect of the city that doesn't change, he added, "is the unique economic engine of the falls themselves."

As well as continuing to huddle with representatives from State Parks, the state Department of Transportation and USA Niagara Development Corp. in a cooperative effort to move the city ahead, Kay said he intends to meet with Seneca Nation leaders "to see what benefits both the casino and the city."

Kay sees at least two kinds of visitors to Niagara Falls: gamblers who come here for the casino and may or may not take a walk to see the falls, and those who come to see the falls and may pop into the casino for an odd bet or two. Both attractions are huge and should complement each other, he said.

"We have the falls and we have the casino -- two reasons to come to Niagara Falls," he said. "These two types of visitors with different purposes can certainly coexist."

Kay said he is working toward more attractions than the existing big two. "If we can add upscale shopping and dining to that mix," he said, "we have a tourism package that becomes a catalyst for even further development."

On top of the falls, the casino and that upscale business and entertainment district, Kay talked of luring to Niagara Falls "one unique attraction" -- a must-see for all tourists.

That, he said, would start a landslide of development.

"When I took this job, I knew there was a good potential to succeed," he added, "and I am convinced we can succeed."

Dyster resurrected the economic development position after a hiatus of more than three years. In June 2005, the City Council refused to renew a contract for an economic development consultant who had been hired by former Mayor Vince Anello.

The man Dyster wanted for the job -- and got after a six-month national search -- was raised in Chautauqua County and began his career as a planner with firms in Jamestown and Buffalo.

Kay has had several top jobs since then, including five years as economic development adviser to then-Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. He has been director of the Department of Economic and Community Development in Dearborn, Mich.; president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Erie County, Pa.; and, most recently, the head of a program at the University of Toledo to develop a science and technology corridor.

Currently a resident of Perrysburg, Ohio, with his wife, Anne, Kay has leased an apartment in the city, pending their relocation to Niagara Falls.

Kay has lived and worked in several places, but he's delighted to be back in Western New York.

"I enjoy new challenges in life," he said, "and certainly here, we have challenges."


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