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HIGH WIRE ACT
RICK REINHARD SETS OUT TO RE-ENVISION A WASTED WONDER

On a Saturday morning in mid-September, 200 Niagara Falls residents slogged through the rain to attend a fix-the-city workshop. Once inside the convention center, they proposed grand schemes: "An aviary!" "A symphony playing 'The 1812 Overture' as the sun sets over the falls!" With brightly colored markers they drew their versions of an urban utopia.

In this, Niagara Falls' latest skirmish between gushing optimism and hip-deep cynicism, the feel-good crowd ruled the day.

Presiding over it all, urging even the surliest to his side with the admonition "Let's try to keep this positive," was Richard Reinhard.

As chief operating officer of the Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp., Reinhard is attempting the stunt numerous daredevils before him have failed at:

Turning the Falls into the No. 1 family tourist destination in the world.

He has walked into bleak situations before. As director of Buffalo Place Inc. -- guardian of downtown's ill-fated pedestrian mall -- he tried to perk up a Main Street that was spiraling into urban oblivion. As Mayor Masiello's chief of staff, he tried to get things done at City Hall, where accomplishing anything efficiently is like skipping rope through wet cement.

But the City of No Illusions has nothing on the City of Lost Potential.

And in the latter, everyone wants to know if Reinhard has what it takes to stay on the high wire.

An American response

"What's happening on the other side of the border is . . . revolutionary," says Reinhard, speaking with the staggered rhythm of one who chooses his words carefully. "This is the ideal time to react to it. It would be . . . un-American not to."

He is referring to the development frenzy occurring near the Canadian Falls. Heartened by the jingle-jangle of quarters dropping into slot machines at Casino Niagara, investors are sinking a staggering $1 billion into the area.

Meanwhile, the American Falls sits by like the neglected twin. That scenario, Reinhard pledges, is about to change.

Led by Edwin Cogan -- the Canadian deal-maker from whom, ironically, Reinhard borrows the "un-American" bit -- Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. promises to pump at least $140 million into Niagara Falls, N.Y., over the next decade. It focuses on a 143-acre site that starts downtown and spreads to the East Side.

Aside from making everyone involved rich -- this is, after all, a for-profit, private enterprise -- its goal is to elevate the city from first-class eyesore to first-class tourist destination.

The master plan will be announced by year's end.

For now Reinhard and his band speak in that murky Planner Dialect of "pedestrian experiences," of "retail ventures," of "entertainment."

So will it be Armani, or Everything for a Dollar, opera or Lasertron?

The tangible details to date:

Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. will recommend a location for a casino. ("Gaming in Niagara Falls, N.Y.," Reinhard says, "is inevitable.")

It will feature low-level buildings, not skyscrapers.

There will be a proposal to reconfigure the Robert Moses Parkway. Connecting the river and parks with the city is a project linchpin. You can't do it with a road in the way.

Cheesiness, drawn to the Falls like yellow slickers to the Maid of the Mist, will be heartily discouraged.

At the Redevelopment Corp.'s Third Street headquarters, Reinhard is hovering over an aerial map. His 6-foot-5-inch frame, that of a 42-year-old who exercises occasionally but drinks beer afterward, casts a shadow over the miniaturized Falls.

This looks like a job for St. Jude.

But Reinhard wants the epitaph "He Got Things Done" etched on his tombstone.

This is his child.

"It won't work unless it's big," he says, when asked whether the plan's massive scope daunts him. "If we were to do something just with this parking lot" -- he points to a splotch on the map -- "it wouldn't work because of everything else around it. You have to deal with everything. And that's what makes this project so challenging and interesting."

The plan is still at the start of its life cycle. Ahead lie administrative wrangling, bureaucratic snares, concessions. And what about deals with the devil? The Falls' history of corruption is legendary. If Reinhard worries about his ability to pull off the feat, he must do his fretting from behind closed doors.

He was skeptical only once that he'll admit. He was driving to Toronto for a meeting with Cogan just before he signed on to the project in June.

Then the city's skyline unfolded before him: The waterfront. The skyscrapers. The SkyDome. The CN Tower.

At that moment he thought: Niagara Falls isn't so big after all.

But there's more than size at stake here. The Falls' history of failed developments is sadly rich, from the mistakes of urban renewal -- the demolition of Falls Street, the building of a convention center in the midst of nothing -- to the horrors of Love Canal. More recently, residents placed their faith in a megamall project that never came to fruition and a splash park that never made one.

They have watched their natural wonder sacrificed on the altar of schlock. So now, expectations are through the roof. People will be seeking salvation in the pouring of concrete. Eyes will be on Reinhard, the most public figure of the team, every step of the way.

And that's fine with him.

"I went from the world of lofty ideas and great plans (at a Harvard fellowship in 1995) to practical politics and incremental change (at City Hall). I like right where I am now, which is right in the middle. I'm surrounded by dreamers."

A Syracuse native, Reinhard received a bachelor's degree in biology from William and Mary College, and master's degree in business administration from Rice University. Before becoming director of Buffalo Place in 1987, he directed area improvement associations in Richmond, Va., and Houston.

He's also a former newspaper reporter who still relishes a bitingly accurate turn of phrase. Two months ago, he came across an American Heritage magazine article about the area. In it the author writes: "Niagara Falls, Ont., may resemble a second-rate amusement park at times, but Niagara Falls, N.Y., resembles a second-rate amusement park that's been closed for 20 years."

Reinhard mailed the article to The Buffalo News, suggesting that it was a perfect fit for its Buzz column. (It was.)

But now he is gazing out the window at the economically disabled Third Street, imagining two blocks of it undergoing a makeover similar to Buffalo's Chippewa Street, the former hooker hot spot turned chic watering hole for twentysomething suburbanites.

When asked what he sees when he looks at Niagara Falls, Reinhard doesn't mention decrepit amusement parks.

Instead, he opts for the politically safe, the epitome of understatement.

"For years," he says, pausing to reflect, "people have thought the Falls is not up to what it could be."

Not for tourists

Call it the anti-tourism tour.

Reinhard and architect Bruce Jolley are walking around Niagara Falls, examining some of the city's sorrier sights: The United Office Building. The Niagara Club. The Turtle. All of them, empty.

In front of the Rainbow Mall, Jolley imagines cars driving through the site of the Wintergarden, straight to the Falls. ("I'm not saying I necessarily want to tear it down," he quickly adds. "I'm just saying it needs to be looked at 'structurally.' ")

In that regard, Reinhard already has years of experience.

"My life in Western New York is inextricably tied to streets that should have cars on them, but took them away about 20 years ago," he says. Of Buffalo's Main Street: "It's an important street in an important city, and they devote it to a choo-choo that runs every six minutes or 12 minutes and has 99 feet of right-of-way."

Last month Reinhard sublet his Buffalo waterfront condominium and moved to the Falls. He won't reveal how much he makes. It is significantly more than the $60,000 he made at City Hall, and more, he'll admit, than Mayor Masiello's annual salary of $79,380.

But he has never taken a job for the money, he says.

So why did he leave City Hall after 14 months?

"I think the mayor is a wonderful person," he says. "He works harder than anyone I have ever seen in my life. He's always on the go, always on the march.

"At the same time there is an active mayor, there is a bureaucracy that has been in place for decades. Being between those two things can be very difficult."

A top aide described Reinhard in City Hall as "a brilliant man caught in the web of politics."

"He really didn't understand it, and he really didn't care for it. He didn't understand how to get through the bureaucracy, and that was deeply frustrating for him."

Before leaving City Hall, Reinhard and Cogan reconnected. The two had collaborated on Main Place Mall projects, such as Jim Kelly's restaurant.

Reinhard told Cogan he was thinking of leaving Western New York forever, for California.

Cogan told Reinhard, "You're not going anywhere."

Cogan is one reason Reinhard is so optimistic about the job. Colorful, exuberant and internationally connected, the millionaire broker is among a handful of men who make the big-money deals in Toronto. According to one magazine: "His Christmas parties at the Windsor Arms Hotel cost (Canadian) $150,000, including the expenses of the Hollywood starlets he imports for the occasion."

Since Cogan turned his interest toward the American side of the Falls -- he also owns property on the Canadian side -- he has stocked an arsenal of metaphors for the city. Unlike Reinhard, he says it plainly.

"It reminded me of East Berlin. It reminded me of an old lady who had let herself go, let herself become a bag lady."

He continues.

"Niagara Falls has got to feel like a battered wife. Every year someone beats the crap out of her and leaves."

Another source of Reinhard's confidence is urban planner Jon Jerde, the world-renowned master of the architecture known as "entertainment design." In his views, cities can be resurrected when shopping and dining become fun and glamorous, like Hollywood. Among the Venice, Calif.-based planner's projects was the high-tech makeover of Las Vegas' Freemont Street (which features 211 million lights and a 540,000-watt sound system); and Los Angeles' CityWalk, the $100-million Art Deco complex next to Universal Studios.

Jerde has been to Niagara Falls to scope out the area before; his chief planner for the project is Bruce Jolley. As Reinhard and Jolley reach the end of their walking tour, they stand in front of E. Dent Lackey Plaza. Together, they picture it evolving into a bustling city hub. Reinhard figures it's a natural spot for a concert series like Thursdays in Lafayette Square, one of many successful events he nurtured during his eight years at Buffalo Place.

On better days the plaza is home to a few skateboarders negotiating curves.

On this day it's empty.

With variations in route and company, Reinhard has taken such walks before, always asking:

What if?

"This is not a parochial person. This is a person who thinks big and regionally," says Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a close friend. (One of the reasons Cogan hired Reinhard is for his bevy of regional connections.)

"He's a rational, calming individual. He's a planner, and this might be the ultimate planning project for him. When you're on the other side of the negotiating table with him, what you feel is comfort. You're not threatened by this guy. You know he generally wants to find a solution to the problem."

Jeff Rea met Reinhard when the two covered county courts for the Syracuse Herald in the early '80s. (Around the newspaper they were known as the "Twin Towers" for their height and width.)

"Rick does not see just the surface of life. I've never known him to make snap judgments to classify people, by category or whatever. He's always thinking two or three steps below the surface," Rea says.

Lights out

Last month a group of Niagara Falls residents traveled to San Diego for a convention. While there, some found themselves staring up at Horton Plaza, Jon Jerde's million-square-foot hotel, shopping and cultural complex credited with restoring a deteriorating city.

Just as Reinhard does every day, they found themselves looking up and asking:

What if?

Christopher Shiah -- owner of the Wedding Chapel, one of the only reminders that the city was once Honeymoon Capital -- went on the tour.

"I'm really optimistic about this," he says of the project.

But in the same breath:

"If this doesn't work, then somebody better tell the last person who leaves this city to shut the lights out."

And if it doesn't, Reinhard may not get his epitaph after all.

But there might be a barrel with his name on it.