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Editorial: State should seize the opportunity to bring back the Turtle

While it would take money to acquire the Native American Center for the Living Arts, commonly known as the Turtle, vision will be required to restore the dream of a Native history and cultural center.

The fact that it has been vacant for 22 years shows that breathing life back into this moribund building on what should be a prime spot in Niagara Falls will not be easy.

So far, no one in city leadership or the current ownership of the property has shown the willingness or capacity to move forward on any project. That may be about to change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last month announced a plan that would have the state buy and then seek developers for vacant buildings along the edge of the Niagara Falls State Park. The Turtle is one of those properties.

The three-story, 67,000-square-foot-building was designed by Arapaho architect Dennis Sun Rhodes in the shape of a turtle, referencing the Haudenosaunee story that North America was created on the back of a giant turtle.

It opened in 1981 and featured “displays of Native artifacts and art, hosted pow-wows, musical and dance performances, film and theatrical presentations and frequent school tours and provided offices for the award-winning magazine Turtle Quarterly,” as News reporter Anne Neville wrote.

Built with federal, state and city loans and grants, it bowed to the pressure of inconsistent funding and mounting tax and utility bills and closed in 1995. Some artifacts and furnishings were seized by the Internal Revenue Service to satisfy tax liens.

In 1997, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, backed by Toronto’s Edwin A. Cogan and New York City billionaire Howard Milstein, amassed more than 200 acres of land downtown, including the Turtle, in return for $140 million of investment in facilities and tourist attractions over an eight-year period. It was a bad deal made worse by broken promises to revitalize the structure as an entertainment and cultural center. The building just sits, serving as an embarrassing symbol of blight and lack of imagination.

Cuomo’s mid-January announcement could change direction for the Turtle and other nearby vacant or underused properties. The governor offered strong hints that the properties could be purchased by the state in a Strategic Land Acquisition Program, as the second part of the Buffalo Billion economic development program.

Many of the properties could lend themselves to retail, residential or commercial uses. But the Turtle is different. It was built for a specific purpose and it would be wrong to devote it to a budget restaurant or cheap souvenirs.

If acquired by the state, officials need to do everything in their power to return it to its core cultural mission celebrating Native history and life. It will need professional management, but it should be controlled by the Native community. Members of that community should be prepared to step in if the opportunity arises.

They will need the vision to overcome the obstacles that made the Turtle financially unworkable by applying good fiscal management, leveraging assets and combining community and private donations with some public funding.

A three-minute YouTube video – Turtle Site Virtual Tour – offers a computer-generated tour of the building, spotlighting the lost opportunity.

The state should acquire the Turtle and lay the groundwork for its rebirth as part of the long-overdue effort to restore luster to this tourist mecca.

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