A $3 million fund to assist new economic development projects in Niagara Falls was announced Friday.
The money was obtained through the last two state budgets, but its original source was the state's share of the Seneca Niagara Casino's revenues, State Sen. Robert G. Ortt said at a news conference in downtown Niagara Falls.
The money, dubbed the Downtown Niagara Falls Tourism Target Zone program, will be administered by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. Its board will vote on all the grants recommended by a steering committee of NCIDA staffers, board members and other local leaders, according to Stephen F. Brady, IDA chairman.
Ortt said casino revenues have been declining, and it's hoped more development around the casino might improve that situation.
"How do you bring those revenues up? You've got to get more people going to the casino," said Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.
But Assemblyman Angelo J. Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said the idea of using what was originally the Senecas' own money to redevelop the area around the casino is not a bargaining chip in the current contract dispute that saw the Senecas cut off payments to the state and localities, including the City of Niagara Falls.
"This has nothing to do with it," Morinello said. "That's an issue that's a legal matter between the president of the Seneca Nation and the governor. These are additional development funds."
The Seneca Nation supports any effort to attract private investment and tourism to Niagara Falls, said its spokesman, Philip J. Pantano.
Eligible projects must be located within two miles of the casino, but they cannot be built on the land controlled by the Senecas, and hotels are not eligible for the aid. The grants are limited to 25 percent of the total cost of a project, but the minimum grant is $50,000. Also, applicants must be able to fund 20 percent of their project's cost on their own.
Questioned by reporters, Ortt said a tourist development inside an existing hotel, such as the water park proposed for the Sheraton at the Falls, could be eligible.
A feasibility study for the World Weather Center, proposed for One Niagara by a group that includes Buffalo TV meteorologist Don Paul, would not be eligible for funding.
"The goal of this is not to fund studies," Ortt said. The actual project, if it's ever ready to be built, could apply for money, however.
Brady said a project funded through the new fund could be eligible for tax breaks or other incentives through the NCIDA, if it's a project that otherwise would qualify. Retail stores are generally barred from receiving IDA tax breaks, but retailers would be allowed to apply for help from the new fund.