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AQUAFALLS ARRANGES TO PAY IDA

The AquaFalls project may have some life in it yet.

The company's attorney said Thursday the international investors who proposed the giant underground aquarium are close to securing more financing to resume construction at a site that, for almost four years, has been merely a large hole in the ground.

The Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, which is owed more than $200,000 by the company, approved a three-month payment arrangement Thursday and pocketed the first $50,000 check.

"The project has not stopped. The owners of the project have been working behind the scenes," said Gregory L. Davis, an attorney from the Buffalo firm of Davis, Augello, Matteliano & Gersten.

Mark J. Gabriele, one of the IDA's attorneys, told the IDA board of directors that he had been told the AquaFalls group is about two months away from closing on new financing.

Questioned on the time frame, Davis said, "Based on the history of the difficulties associated with financing this aquarium project in Niagara Falls, I hesitate to make a prediction on that point."

Davis said the new financing arrangement for AquaFalls will not involve any government money. He said the cash will come from multiple private sources, primarily foreign.

AquaFalls has been an international project from the start. Gilles Assouline, the company's president, is a Frenchman, and many of the original backers were from the Far East. The designers were from Australia and Great Britain.

The IDA board unanimously approved the payment plan for the AquaFalls debt of $216,075.

Gabriele said that the remaining payment schedule calls for $50,000 on June 15 and July 15, with the balance, $66,075, due Aug. 15.

If AquaFalls obtains its new financing before then, the entire debt would be due immediately, Gabriele said.

"We look forward to that happening," Davis said.

He said the promissory note covered the remainder of the fees AquaFalls owed the IDA from the issuance of $37 million worth of industrial revenue bonds to back the project in 1999. The IDA also granted the project a 10-year property tax break at that time.

AquaFalls, which Davis estimated will cost $45 million to $50 million, is to be built at the former Occidental Chemical Center, 360 Rainbow Blvd.

In addition to the aquarium, the building was to contain some commercial space on upper floors. Davis said that part of the project is being "re-engineered" to make it more "progressive," but declined to discuss specifics.

The investors spent about $2 million digging the 40-foot-deep hole, starting in August 1999. In some eyes, the often-ridiculed hole has come to symbolize economic development here before the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Last fall, the City Council revoked a package of incentives the city had granted AquaFalls in 1999, which included a promised free water fill-up to a parking discount in city-owned ramps.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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