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DEVELOPING ACTION <br> NIAGARA FALLS REDEVELOPMENT HOPES TO BECOME A SIGNIFICANT PLAYER IN THE CITY'S FUTURE BY ITS PURCHASE OF THE FORMER NABISCO PLANT

Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the development company whose inaction has irked city officials for years, has taken its most substantial development step yet, purchasing the former Nabisco plant and warehouse last week.

The deal, which took years, makes the development company, owned by Manhattan real estate billionaire Howard Milstein, a significant player again in the future of Niagara Falls development.

"This property is one of the keys to the future of downtown," said Roger Trevino, NFR executive vice president and spokesman. "It's half of the gateway that will welcome millions to Niagara Falls every year."

Some local officials were cautiously optimistic the deal would mark the end of NFR's perceived inertia.

"I hope that they can do something in conjunction with the downtown redevelopment district," said State Sen. George Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda. "I'm glad to see that they're at last moving forward, and I hope that they're serious."

Niagara Falls Mayor Irene Elia concurred.

"I would only encourage them to develop something, because I have not seen anything positive to date," Elia said. "But I'm not going to give up on anybody."

The 11.6-acre property, at the corner of Buffalo Avenue and John B. Daly Boulevard, is across from the former Niagara Splash park, which is expected to become a $250 million hotel-casino-entertainment complex owned by the Seneca Niagara Falls Gaming Corp.

Seneca Niagara Casino head Mickey Brown declined to comment.

The city is negotiating with NFR to settle outstanding lawsuits over development rights to the former splash park and 142 acres north of the Nabisco property.

If a settlement can be reached, the Seneca Nation's casino complex and Niagara Falls Redevelopment's efforts may help other projects move forward.

Trevino said NFR already has fielded several serious inquiries from developers interested in the building. But it's too early to decide what it should become, he said.

The property includes a parking lot of about 340 spaces and two buildings, a four-story 200,000-square-foot manufacturing building connected to a 175,000-square-foot warehouse. The warehouse has 22-foot ceilings, nine truck bays and a railroad spur nearby.

It also includes the grain silos that made the factory a Niagara Falls landmark. Trevino said it was not clear what part the silos would play in the property's future.

"It would make a great canvas to highlight development in the Falls," Trevino said. "You don't see a lot of demand for 750,000 bushels of grain storage these days."

The buildings are in a state Empire Zone, which carries economic benefits such as property tax abatements for new businesses.

NFR had previously pitched the Nabisco property as the best site in Niagara Falls for a convention center to replace the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center. That state-owned building was turned over to the Seneca Nation and transformed into the current Seneca Niagara Casino, leaving the city's tourism industry without a site large enough to hold a gathering of several thousand conventioneers.

The state's Niagara Falls development office, USA Niagara Development, has decided to focus on another building, the former Falls Street Faire. State efforts to obtain the building through eminent domain are currently under way.

Despite being passed over as a convention venue, the Nabisco property's attributes will ensure that it doesn't go unused, Trevino said. "It could be an entertainment venue, retail, or a gateway center welcoming visitors to world-famous Niagara Falls," he said. "We could see it complete with an information center, and a service facility to meet the needs of the motor coach industry."

But nothing has been decided yet, Trevino said.

The $3.2 million purchase is the second piece of Niagara Falls property that the development firm has bought. It acquired the Turtle, a former Native American museum, in 2000. That building has been renovated but not reactivated.

The lack of NFR-related development has long been a sore spot for city officials. The firm signed a development contract with the city in 1997 that gave NFR rights to city land in exchange for promised development.

Last year, after years of little apparent action, the city declared that its 1997 contract with NFR was void because of the firm's failure to spur development, erasing rights to city land the contract granted.

NFR officials responded that it's still entitled to the land, including the former water park earmarked for casino development.

The resulting lawsuits, including Niagara Falls attorney and former developer John Bartolomei as an NFR ally, have complicated the Seneca Nation's casino expansion plans.

Trevino said he couldn't comment on progress of settlement talks. But once the casino complex is built, he said, it and the Nabisco site development would be two halves of the gateway to Niagara Falls.

Formerly owned by Kraft Foods, the property has been one of the most famous pieces of dry land in the city.

The plant originally produced Shredded Wheat cereal, associated with Niagara Falls for decades. When Nabisco moved the plant to Rainbow Boulevard in 1950, the towering silos were such a landmark that they played a part in the 1953 movie "Niagara," starring Marilyn Monroe.

But the cereal industry was changing, as companies responded to labor costs and other economic pressures. The production of Shredded Wheat at the plant ceased in 1993, when Nabisco's cereal business was bought by Kraft General Foods, which in turn is owned by Philip Morris. The last Nabisco product made by the Niagara Falls facility was Triscuits.

In December 2001, that line was shut down too, and the manufacturing plant's remaining 200 workers were laid off.

Hopefully, Trevino said, those jobs can be more than replaced by the business the Nabisco property eventually creates.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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