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IN NIAGARA COUNTY, WORKING TO MAKE DREAMS COME TRUE

Those who would take the temperature of Niagara County's tourism industry at the turn of the millennium wouldn't find standard thermometers useful at all. Instead, they'd be left wishing for a crystal ball.

The biggest developments of 1999 remain potential developments, frozen in a state of commercial suspended animation. From sleepy downtown Niagara Falls to the all-but-unused "Niagara Falls International Airport," watching for something to happen in 2000 was 1999's order of the day.

There was one example of real tourism development in downtown Niagara Falls, to be sure, but it was the exception.

The $35 million plan to open an entertainment complex anchored by an underground aquarium named Aquafalls moved forward on schedule. Just before New Year's, the deal to buy the site -- the former Occidental Chemical building overlooking the Rainbow Bridge plaza -- was declared closed.

When ground was broken on the project in August, it was the first major construction project downtown in more than a decade. Its developers hope to have it open by August, creating the first new major tourist draw in Niagara Falls, N.Y., since the Niagara Splash water park opened in 1988.

The water park, taken over by the city, went dry in 1996.

But it wasn't dry for long before the site, and acres of city land around it, became part of the grandest tourism plans the city had ever seen.

That would be the reshaping of downtown Niagara Falls at the hands of Niagara Falls Redevelopment, backed by Toronto developer Edwin Cogan and billionaire real estate investor Howard Milstein. City officials, with public support, in 1997 eagerly turned over rights to the most exploitable acres of downtown to the men with the pretty artists' drawings.

Then the city waited, with bated breath. And waited, and waited. Eventually the waiting became a sizable part of the city's determination to throw out the old mayor -- Jim Galie, denied even his own party's nomination -- and bring in the new, rookie Republican officeholder Irene Elia.

Casino gambling was a big part of Redevelopment's calculations from the beginning. To see why that was so, all anyone had to do was look across the Niagara River to Niagara Falls, Ont., where a "temporary" casino was the engine driving more than $1 billion in new development.

In 1998, when legislation that would have allowed casino gambling in Niagara Falls, N.Y., again died a lonely death in the State Legislature, the city waited to see whether that would weaken Niagara Falls Redevelopment's ardor for the overhaul plans. Milstein himself said that casino gambling was a needed ingredient in the redevelopment plan, something city officials protested was not made clear before they signed over development rights.

The first major deadline in the redevelopment agreement came on Dec. 18, 1999. By that point, according to the redevelopment contract, the developers were due to at least announce detailed plans for a $20 million investment in downtown Niagara Falls.

They did not issue so much as a press release.

Elia, the new mayor, said she was going to hold Niagara Falls Redevelopment accountable, but wouldn't be jumping to quickly void the contract. As a practical matter, the city attorney at the time said, the penalty for missing the deadline was probably limited to the developers losing their options to buy city parking facilities and the Wintergarden.

With a new administration and a new city attorney, the city's stance on fallout from the missed deadline could change.

But for the time being, it seems, having the Wintergarden freed up might turn out well for the city. Another developer has been interested in turning the Wintergarden into a $1.5 million rain forest attraction with butterflies and tropical birds. In November, the city granted Wintergarden Entertainment an option to lease the building for 20 years, as long as Niagara Falls Redevelopment didn't exercise its option first.

No threat of that now.

Another question mark on the tourism horizon remains the Niagara Falls airport. The former Air Force base, still home to reservists, boasts the only runways in Western New York that can handle wide-body 747 jets. Many planners and local business interests have imagined the potential in combining the world-famous Falls with an easy transportation hub. Making it work is harder.

Operating rights to the airport have been awarded to a Spanish firm named Cintra, which edged out a company created by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency for those rights. Local officials remain hopeful that turning the airport into an easy flight for tourists could have a profound economic impact on the area.

But like everything else important in Niagara's tourism future this coming year, it remains to be seen.

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