Polished pine floors and red leather lounge chairs set off a 360-bottle wine rack in a new bar on Third Street.
City leaders toured the place Thursday amid hopes it's the latest glimmer of renewal in a beleaguered neighborhood a few blocks from the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel.
Three partners from Lewiston and Youngstown celebrated the opening of Wine on Third and the completion of three second-floor loft apartments at 501-507 Third St.
But the risk of opening a business in a two-block commercial district where at least a quarter of the buildings are vacant is not lost on its owners.
"We went in with our eyes open, knowing that we're going to be an island for a little while," said Shawn Weber, who joined Lewiston brothers David and John Giusiana to renovate the building.
Finding funding for the project was difficult. They owned the site for eight years before serving the first customers Thursday.
"No traditional bank would touch stuff down here," Weber said. "This was a vacant building, with no tenants, with crummy apartments."
So they used a $100,000 state grant from USA Niagara Development Corp., a $45,000 city apartment rehabilitation grant, a $10,000 facade grant and a $300,000 loan from the Community Preservation Corp. to reopen the building.
CGGW, the limited liability corporation that owns the building, put in an additional $175,000, plus the cost of the building, Weber said.
The bar, which will serve appetizers and desserts, offers 40 wines by the glass. Five paintings by Lewiston artist Thomas Paul Asklar that depict the falls in rich blues and whites line the walls.
Weber and Giusiana hope the gutted loft apartments will draw young professionals willing to pay between $800 and $1,200 in monthly rent for units with skylights, hardwood floors, granite counter tops and stainless steel fixtures.
"We've really found that people want nice products, and if you give them a nice product, they will come," said Weber, who also co-owns and manages the Jefferson Apartments on Rainbow Boulevard.
A $3.5 million streetscape project by the city and USA Niagara rebuilt Third Street and added iron lights, brick sidewalks and wooden benches in 2005 -- but business is still difficult for many merchants.
At least two bars on Third have scaled back hours and menus since the street improvements were finished.
Paul Morreale, co-owner of Third Street Liquors and operator of Braggs bar, said he once kept Braggs open seven days a week but now only opens four nights. He blamed several factors but said the nearby casino has drawn away patrons.
Like others, Morreale said progress is coming "slowly but surely."
Steve Fournier Sr., owner of Donatello's Restaurant, described Third Street as a "roller coaster" since he first opened a bar there in 1981. His son now owns a jazz club, Cafe Etc., in the same site and is renovating six apartments upstairs through the city's apartment rehabilitation program.
"It's got its ups and downs. Hopefully, better days will come," said Fournier, who said the change in the drinking age and the Canadian dollar drew a lot of young customers who came to Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the 1980s across the border to Ontario.
Another nightclub, Club New York, opened earlier this year, and the city's first Starbucks opened in a newly renovated Crowne Plaza Hotel on Third Street in December. A project approved by the Planning Board to build a karaoke bar in a shuttered dress shop has not yet materialized.
Chris Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, conceded that progress along Third Street has come slowly and taken significant public investment.
"It will never be fast enough for any of us, but we should know that the momentum is a positive one," Schoepflin said. "We are making positive steps."
Another Niagara Falls investor, Richard Hastings, believes the wine bar opening is a sign the attitude in the Falls is changing.
"It's starting to show a rebirth. It's ever so small, but it's here," Hastings said. "Like Third Street, you've got to have somebody with the vision and courage to start it and have the wherewithal to do it."