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Master plan aired by Senecas for Falls development

The Seneca Nation’s development agency wants to build a new convention center and entertainment venue in downtown Niagara Falls, and outlined its master plan this week to more than a dozen state, county, city and town leaders.

The Senecas also intend to bring back a controversial plan to put a 24-pump gas station on Seneca Niagara Casino property that failed to move forward four years ago.

These proposals were outlined in a master plan that Sean Caffery, chief executive officer of Seneca Development, discussed this week with local leaders at the Industrial Development Agency headquarters in the Vantage Center in Wheatfield.

“It’s a place that can be completely transformed,” Caffery said of the area around the Seneca Niagara Casino. “There’s enormous interest.”

Missing from the the discussion, though, was one important cog to make those changes – Howard Milstein, whose Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. owns or has claim to 142 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the Seneca Niagara property. The footprint downtown is nearly three times the 52 acres that the Senecas own.

None of the plans that NFR has floated since Milstein bought in the properties in the 1990s, including an entertainment venue and a stadium for the Buffalo Bills, has materialized.

More than one person suggested it is time for local leaders to reach out to Milstein to meet with them.

“If we don’t try with the person who owns the property, then there’s no discussion,” Assemblyman John Ceretto said.

While the Seneca master plan offered ideas for zones beyond the Seneca land, including green space, a hotel space and housing space, the proposal for a new convention center appeared to be the most ambitious if less concrete idea.

Developers are interested in a new convention center, Caffery said, but he said the most likely site is owned by Milstein’s NFR company.

Boundaries for the NFR site are Portage Road, Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Street and John Daly Boulevard. The site has gone undeveloped since the late 1990s.

The city lost its convention center when the Seneca Niagara Casino took over the site.

“Our gaming corporation has identified this as a major need for the city,” Caffery said of a new convention center.

The only way to attract more visitors to the city, especially in the off-season, is through large-scale conventions, he said. And the only viable site would be on NFR land.

Different ideas on what kind of convention center to build are being floated, Caffery said, and cost estimates range from $60 million to as much as $250 million for a larger convention center.

“We knew that on our own we wouldn’t be able to pay for it, but we have pledged our support for it,” Caffery said.

He urged governmental leadership to “leverage NFR” to move forward.

“You’ve got a group of people incredibly talented at assembling land who aren’t developers,” he added. “You need someone to come in and say this is how you make a convention center.”

Local leaders seemed to agree.

“For the future of Niagara Falls you have to solve this problem,” agreed Niagara County Industrial Development Agency Chairman Henry Sloma.

The Senecas also want to build an entertainment center about half the size of the 6,000- to 8,000-seat venue that NFR considered in 2014, Caffery said.

The Seneca master plan is in keeping with the city’s master plan, said Anthony Vilardo, director of the city’s business development agency.

The Senecas and the city also want to partner on building housing for the people who work at the casino and other downtown businesses. This project is intended to provide more convenient housing for workers as well as to create a better first impression of the city for visitors.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com