After decades of stumbling, Niagara Falls is getting serious about boosting tourism - The Buffalo News

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After decades of stumbling, Niagara Falls is getting serious about boosting tourism

Niagara Falls needed a way around a crackpot City Council that blocks downtown tourist development, and maybe two new ideas will help.

On Thursday, city and state officials announced a joint project to help provide tourists with reasons to stay longer than it takes to marvel at the falls. Together, they are funding $40 million in public incentives as part of a competition called the “Downtown Niagara Falls Development Challenge.”

That effort followed by a few days a gathering of state legislators, business people and others involved in the tourism and hospitality industries looking to accomplish much the same thing: bolstering tourism in and around a city whose name practically shouts the word.

Both are great efforts. They should have happened years ago. Tourism is this city’s stock in trade, especially with the decline of manufacturing. If it can’t succeed at tourism, its economy will never be more than anemic.

The timing was just about perfect. First the meeting, convened by Republican Assembly members representing the Assembly Minority Economic Development, Education & Infrastructure Task Force, looks at ways to expand Niagara Falls’ pull, and then the state and city throw $40 million on the table in a creative way to jump-start that very process.

The competition is aimed at producing “signature projects” to boost tourism from top-drawer designers, developers and operators. The idea, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is to incentivize those experts “to dream up and propose grand ideas to transform the downtown Niagara Falls area into a premier destination that will attract tourists and fuel private investment.”

Indeed, that is Niagara Falls’ birthright. There can be no other city in the developed world with as much squandered potential as Niagara Falls, N.Y. Hardly a soul around the world isn’t familiar with the name, yet through a combination of corruption and incompetence, the city provides little for tourists to do after viewing the falls, effectively encouraging them to leave. Fixing that is Job One.

The problem repeated itself only weeks ago, when three members of the Niagara Falls City Council tried to block the first significant non-casino development project in the city in decades, and a hotel, at that – something specifically designed to play to the tourist trade. With the change of one vote, the project was recently approved, but that kind of self-sabotage has been all too common in Niagara Falls.

There have been some heartening developments recently. The establishment of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute was a great step forward, as are the plans by the city and Nik Wallenda to commemorate his 2012 tightrope walk across the falls. The state’s plan to rip up the Robert Moses Parkway and reconnect the city to its dramatic riverfront is also significant.

But there is little else, and a city that wants tourists not only to come, but to stay, needs more: more attractions, better signage and better transportation so that visitors to Niagara Falls are more likely to consider taking in Artpark and Lewiston, Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown and the Erie Canal locks in Lockport. Those were just some of the needs identified in last week’s brainstorming session in the Falls, and with its burgeoning waterfront, there is no reason Buffalo can’t benefit from that, as well.

Now, the state and the city are putting up a pile of money to help make those things happen. The question is whether Niagara Falls is up to the task of working in its own behalf or if it will, once again, trip over its own feet.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t be able to get this done. Just keep City Council out of the way.

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