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Falls leaders call project a frustrating Experience Money issues stymie museum supporters

It has been more than six years since then-Gov. George E. Pataki stood before business leaders at the city's convention center and promised $10 million for a grass-roots effort to build a world-class museum to celebrate the history of the famous falls.

City leaders are still waiting for that pledge of state money to become reality.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster has renewed calls for a state investment in the proposed Niagara Experience Center, a state-of-the-art museum planned for downtown Niagara Falls that would champion the region's attractions and tell the story of the creation of the falls.

"This is very, very important, not just to the City of Niagara Falls, but the whole development of heritage tourism in Western New York," Dyster said. "If we don't find a way of getting visitors from Niagara Falls to Buffalo attractions like the Darwin Martin House or the Burchfield-Penney or the waterfront in Buffalo, I don't know where they think the visitors are going to come from."

Community leaders have been working for more than a decade to refine a vision first laid out by local historian and author Paul Gromosiak.

A consulting firm unveiled conceptual plans in 2004 for the landmark museum and welcome center, designed to wow visitors and convince them to stay in the region after viewing the falls.
The proposal was added to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's regional agenda this year.

But the stumbling block has been its estimated $100 million price tag.

So far, $3 million of the city's casino revenue has been dedicated to the project, along with several grants from private foundations and staff support from the state's Niagara Falls development office, USA Niagara Development Corp.

Dyster, who was chairman of the Niagara Experience Center board of directors before stepping down to run for mayor last year, said the museum needs a large state investment -- he estimates about 20 percent of the total project cost -- to attract private sector money.

"The amount of money that we're talking about with the Experience Center would be what they put in a piggy bank in Manhattan," Dyster said. "So I don't want to hear from Albany that there's no money for Western New York."

The project has suffered setbacks this year.

Dyster spent months building the support of former Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, only to have the governor leave office the same week the mayor was scheduled to travel to Albany to meet with him to discuss the Experience Center and other development projects.

A month earlier, when asked about the Experience Center during a news conference in the Falls, Spitzer told reporters: "We're going to make it happen."

Dyster said he heard little from Albany about the project after Spitzer's resignation until last week, when the mayor met with a representative of Gov. David A. Paterson to discuss downtown development.

Meanwhile, the Experience Center board hasn't met in nearly a year, and Gromosiak, frustrated with what he perceived as several missed opportunities by USA Niagara and the board, resigned this month.

Gromosiak said he had grown concerned in recent months that the project would never move forward.

"You don't know how my heart is broken," Gromosiak said. "How many hours I put in trying to get this thing going."

The Experience Center board also abandoned a plan to hire an executive director last year and never appointed a new chairman after Dyster stepped down.

Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, said Experience Center board members decided it would be premature to hire an executive director. He said the board's last meeting in November wrapped up the project's planning phase.

"A ton of work has been done in planning, which is the meat and potatoes of the project," Schoepflin said. "Then you have to go out and raise the money to build the project, and there's not often a lot of work you can do between the planning and when you raise the money."

"It's a very aggressive project that we always knew would take some time to try to search out the funding," said Steve Brown, a member of the Experience Center and USA Niagara boards. "I can only point to what they did with the old Aud in Buffalo, the canal revitalization, the waterfront revitalization in Buffalo. Those types of projects take a long time. There's a lot of people involved. You just don't go and pull money off a tree."

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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