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YELLOW BRICK ROAD DETOURS AROUND NIAGARA FALLS <br> IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN IF THAT'S A BAD THING

If Niagara Falls were a character in "The Wizard of Oz," it would be the Wicked Witch of the East.

You remember, the one who got crushed by the house.

That's how residents and leaders have felt after a quarter-century of mostly failed development proposals.

Those who have been around since the 1950s and '60s remember when Third Street bustled like Clifton Hill does today; a time when they didn't need to cross the border for entertainment.

While project after project has taken shape on the Canadian side during the last couple of decades, those on the U.S. side of the border have been promised everything from a world-class aquarium to a year-round indoor family fun center to replace the former Wintergarden greenhouse.

What do residents have to show for it? A gaping pit steps from the Rainbow Bridge, a Splash Park-turned ghost town and 142 acres of prime downtown land given to Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp., with less development on it than on Route 104 in Hartland.

"This is such a beautiful place, and we end up looking like a mess," said Pat Swain, who moved to the city more than 60 years ago.

Swain said most residents feel shell-shocked by false promises, and every time a new proposal comes up they brace for more disappointment.

The latest project to raise doubt comes from a Kentucky-based company that claims it is wrapping up its review of a $600 million to $700 million Wizard of Oz theme park that might go on a 600-acre site in Wheatfield near Summit Park Mall. Oz Central company officials made the announcement Wednesday, not from Wheatfield, but from the Midwest.

Company officials, who did not return several messages from The Buffalo News last week, had met with Niagara Falls leaders in January, touting a $670 million indoor-outdoor theme park. They asked for more than $50,000 for their feasibility study, plus help in acquiring about 200 acres of land.

Wheatfield Town Supervisor Timothy E. Demler met with Oz Central officials in Indiana last week and has kept Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello up to speed on the project during the last few months, he said.

Anello listens to developers almost every day about their plans for his city. In a spot that has seen its share of speculators and hucksters over the decades, today's visionaries come in all shapes and sizes, he said.

Remember Glenda the Good Witch's question? Well the mayor of Niagara Falls wants to know: Are you a good developer or a bad developer?

You'd best come prepared to back up your claim.

"When developers come to my office I tell them I have nothing to offer them but opportunity," said the first-year mayor. "We do not discourage imagination. It's not a question of how fantastic it may seem. But then what we ask for is, 'How is it financed and do the numbers make sense?' "

Anello said the city has given land and money to developers in the past without verifying investors and finances.

Niagara Falls has little to show for such blind faith. The yellow brick road to tourism -- always paved with good intentions, even a few ribbon cuttings -- until now has largely been made of fake gold.

As a former City Council member, the mayor said that he relied on projections he was given by past administrations to make development choices but that things will be different. He said he would be cutting ribbons every week if developers could actually show his office some cold, hard cash.

"I've already had five projects proposed" for a downtown parking ramp demolished earlier this month," he said. "But we need a project that makes sense."

The city and region can offer the opportunity to build literally at the edge of a natural wonder of the world that draws millions. The Seneca casino is another economic magnet.

Still, when it comes to an Oz project, past failures give rise to caution.

Demler said he hopes Wheatfield will be chosen as the site for the development project. He said it would bring more money and jobs to the area.

Oz Central officials told the Wheatfield supervisor last week they have gained enough money from private investors to satisfy the wishes of town leaders, but Demler said he was not given the names of those investors.

Those in Niagara Falls have some advice for Wheatfield: Make sure you know what's behind the curtain before you open taxpayer wallets.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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