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'Niagara Experience' project likely to gain ground with casino funds Interactive attraction seen boosting tourism in Falls

The planned $92 million Niagara Experience Center museum could gain a lot of ground in the new year with casino revenues to pay for a new executive director, preconstruction work on an undisclosed site and development of how the region's story will be told.

USA Niagara Development Corp. recently approved a funding agreement with the nonprofit corporation spearheading the plan to build an interactive attraction that would be a regional boost for tourism.

It spells out how $3 million from 2004 and 2005 local casino slots revenues, given to the state agency but allocated specifically for the initiative, will be spent.

Until now, the effort has been maintained by a volunteer board and with the use of staff at USA Niagara, the state's development arm in the city. Employees there are working on a Web site and grant applications, among other things.

"Having USA Niagara staff work on the project has been very, very helpful," said Paul C. Dyster, chairman of the Experience Center board. "But we're at a point now where we have the funding and we have to start weaning ourselves from using that staff for everything."

Dyster envisions hiring a full-time director, but said the board hasn't written a job announcement, or settled on duties, qualifications or salary. The agreement with USA Niagara transfers $100,000 to the board of directors of Niagara Experience Center Inc., immediately, with up to $50,000 of that available for a director search.

The rest of the money, after a spending plan is approved, can be used for consultants for preconstruction activities such as urban planning, environmental review and landscape design. An architect could be hired, and money will be available for legal, public relations and marketing firms to attract more funding and get the word out about why this is important for the region.

Board member Robert Shibley, of the University at Buffalo's Urban Design Project, explains there is a "hub and spokes" concept of its expected effect. The hub is Niagara Falls, where the region's stories will be interpreted, and the spokes are the significant historic and cultural places visitors will want to visit once they've learned about them at the museum.

The plan is to design an interpretive center attractive enough to draw the attention, and interest, of a sizable number of the millions of visitors to both sides of Niagara Falls.

There's still a lot of work to do before it's on firm financial footing, but the vision has gained enough backing that it now has the ability to take more concrete steps.

Besides the $3 million in casino revenue, Gov. George E. Pataki has committed $10 million in capital funding for the end of construction, and $145,000 was donated for start-up costs last year from the John R. Oishei and Margaret L. Wendt foundations.

The latter money was used on planners that have helped the board come up with a master schematic plan, which includes a preferred site. It has been made clear that the museum will be a 100,000-square-foot building located near the American Falls and Niagara Falls State Park. Until the master plan is approved by the board and released to the public, that's all they're saying.

Dyster said approval could come sometime between the next month and the next year, depending on how soon funding sources can be solidified. He wants to present the package to the public when it has the necessary backing.

In the meantime, Dyster said the board has met with federal lawmakers about gaining support and will soon meet with the new staff at Empire State Development Corp.

Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer told The Buffalo News in September that he would continue with Pataki's precedent of making the project a priority.

"Niagara Falls needs some world-class attractions that will give people a reason to stay on the U.S. side once they have visited the state park," Spitzer said in an e-mail. "If elected governor, I would continue to work with USA Niagara and with the people of Niagara Falls to move this project forward."

Shibley said, "We're now demonstrating community support with the money that has got us this far. It's an ambitious project but it's one of those things that if you believe it won't happen, it won't, but if you do, it will happen."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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