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Don Paul seeks Niagara Falls funding for interactive weather center study

Don Paul says a high-tech interactive weather science center would be a boost to Niagara Falls.

But his chances of getting city funding for a feasibility study? The forecast isn't promising.

Paul, the veteran meteorologist now working for WKBW-TV, is vice president of a group seeking to construct a World Weather Center in downtown Niagara Falls.

The center would be a tourist attraction but would also have a scientific mission, Paul said.

"Everything we do is going to be based on hard science," he said. "We hope to host research conferences, some ongoing research in the center. We think we have the ability to draw people during the cold-weather months, not just the peak tourism months."

Sergio Fornasiero, the president of the volunteer board proposing the not-for-profit center, said an initial study projected 400,000 visitors a year to the center.

Private donors paid the $50,000 cost of the study's first phase, and more private contributions will be sought. But assistance from the city for the study's second phase would be a big help, Fornasiero said.

Paul and his associates plan to attend Monday's Niagara Falls City Council meeting to make their second presentation on the project. They would like the Council to agree to make a cash contribution toward the second phase of the feasibility study, which is expected to cost $100,000.

"We feel the public sector can also fund this to some degree, so we can move faster," Fornasiero said.

Thomas DeSantis, a senior planner for the city, said he met with the group a few months ago and told them not to count on city money.

"I said, No. 1, we don't have a lot of money. And, No. 2, we don't usually fund feasibility studies for private business," DeSantis said.

Fornasiero said foundations and other possible center investors "want the feasibility study completed before they will talk to you."

Capitalizing on weather reputation

Paul said the weather center would be a major contribution to Niagara Falls' perennial quest to keep tourists in the city after they've seen the falls.

He said he feels momentum building for a Niagara Falls renaissance and wants the weather center to be a part of it.

Don Paul said the weather center he is proposing for Niagara Falls would be a major contribution to the city's perennial quest to keep tourists in the city after they've seen the falls.

A consultant who considered several possible sites in Niagara Falls and Buffalo zeroed in on One Niagara, the largely vacant "flash cube" building at 360 Rainbow Blvd., owned by Gordon Reger of West Seneca.

Paul said the project probably wouldn't need all of One Niagara, but the plan, calling for high-tech storm simulators, definitely can't be built on one level.

"They have too much vertical development – the virtual tornado chasing, the virtual hurricane hunter flights in what could be a very large flight simulator-type device," Paul said.

He said the idea for the center was hatched when he was invited to a meeting several years ago with then-Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts and Kathy Hochul, who was then Swarts' deputy clerk and is now the state's lieutenant governor.

The subject, Paul recalled, was "how we might capitalize on Western New York weather's reputation instead of allowing it to continue as a liability."

Fornasiero said the original notion was to find a place for the center in downtown Buffalo, "to capitalize on Buffalo's worldwide reputation as a weather capital."

But the consulting firm, ConsultEcon of Cambridge, Mass., decided the attraction's chances of success were better in Niagara Falls because of its higher volume of tourists.

Fornasiero said the second phase of the ConsultEcon study is to determine how much it would cost to build the center, how much space would be needed, and how much should be charged for admission. Another Massachusetts company, Cambridge Seven Associates, would prepare architectural renderings.

"It would take what frankly is an eyesore and turn it into a gorgeous piece of architecture, beautifully sited for visitors," Paul said. "There is nothing else like this in North America."

Paul said the center would try to stay out of the political debate about climate change.

"The scientific debate is not much of a debate. The main debate is really how fast warming will proceed and how extreme it will get, not whether it's going on or will go on," Paul said. "We're going to be involved in showing how climate change is already impacting us.

Fornasiero formerly operated a concrete construction company and was involved in the construction of the Waterfront Village and River Mist townhouse developments in Buffalo.

Other members of the weather center board include Paul Maurer, a senior account manager for Entercom, which owns several Buffalo radio stations, and David Norton, an engineer at Moog Inc.

"My goal, maybe, is to be a docent in the center when it's built. It would give me something to do," Paul joked. "But all of us are volunteers. There are no vested interests here, which is nice. We can go before everybody with a straight face and say, 'Well, this is something we thing we need.' "

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