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Two leading Western New York foundations are helping fund start-up costs for the Niagara Experience Center, the attraction being designed to make visits elsewhere in the region a must for the millions of tourists visiting Niagara Falls.

The John R. Oishei Foundation gave $75,000 to the nonprofit corporation spearheading the project, and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation contributed $70,000. The money will go toward comprehensive urban planning, site evaluation and building programming, work that is currently under way.

Thomas E. Baker, president of the Oishei Foundation, said the foundation decided to support the Niagara Experience Center at this stage mainly because "the concept outlines broad development along the Niagara Gorge that is complementary, rather than competitive, with development across the border."

The regional approach fits in with the Buffalo Niagara Cultural Tourism Initiative, the new drive to market the region's cultural attractions and develop complementary projects. Oishei also helped fund that initiative, a two-year effort led by the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth at the University at Buffalo.

"Any positive development we can support in Niagara Falls will ultimately have an impact on Buffalo and the rest of the region," Baker said.

While Niagara Falls, Ont., has tilted toward wax museums and amusement parks, "no one has offered the visitor the interpretive center that celebrates the real Niagara Falls, the natural environment and human history that make this place a world-class attraction," said Paul Dyster, Niagara Experience Center board chairman.

Winning the blessing of Western New York's two largest foundations -- which closely vet funding requests -- will be crucial for the project, Dyster said. That support will "bridge a good portion of the gap between a really brilliant idea and a project that's concrete, well-defined, with a price tag and a site," Dyster said. Once that work is done, he said, "we can start raising the money to build it."

Gov. George E. Pataki has already committed $10 million in capital funding for the project, whose price tag could be $60 to $70 million.

That's a significant cost, but the rewards should be substantial too, Dyster said. The Niagara Experience Center will be designed to funnel visitors from the world-famous Niagara Falls to the lesser-known, but deserving, attractions in Buffalo and elsewhere in the region.

"This project has the potential to not only aid in the revitalization of downtown Niagara Falls, but act as a gateway to dozens of cultural tourism attractions throughout the Buffalo Niagara region that don't benefit from Niagara Falls' millions of visitors today," Dyster said.

The state's Niagara Falls development office, USA Niagara Development, paid for nationally known attraction consultants to work with the Niagara Experience Center group last year.

Oishei's Baker said that the project's first-class consultants made the proposal even more attractive.

"The effort has brought in some of the most experienced theme-oriented developers in the world to help guide the process from the start, which was another critical factor in our decision," Baker said. "The better the work is up front, the better the final project will be and the greater the likelihood that other funding sources will participate."

Charles Gargano, Empire State Development Corp. chairman, said he was glad to see the NEC garnering strong community support.

Using the Wendt and Oishei funding, among other sources, a team of consultants from BRC Imagination Arts spent the last week on a listening tour, Dyster said. They asked local stakeholders -- including property owners, attraction and hotel operators -- for their input on issues like where the project should be located, and why, Dyster said.