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Council's OK likely for Holiday Market; Downtown Falls project has overcome roadblock

The $900,000 Holiday Market proposed for downtown appears headed for approval at tonight's meeting of the City Council -- a 180-degree turnaround from just a week ago, when it looked as if the project had hit an insurmountable roadblock.

Part of the turnaround can be attributed to enthusiastic promotion by Idaho developer Mark Rivers, the seemingly indefatigable businessman who told the Council that he "thinks big" and that his venture would make "downtown Niagara Falls the new hometown for holidays in the nation."

The other key player in the turnaround is Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, who said last week that the city had no money to support the project and that Rivers should "pay for it yourself." The Tourism Advisory Board had just turned thumbs-down on the proposal, and Fruscione told board members, "I am going to vote against it. There is no way I will ever do this proposal."

At the time, Rivers was asking for a $225,000 grant from the city and another $225,000 grant from the state through its USA Niagara Development Corp.

Rivers, president and CEO of Brix & Co. of Boise, said his commercial development company would raise the remaining $450,000 or so for the Holiday Market's first year of operation in a public-private partnership that would open a market with about 80 vendors on Old Falls Street for 36 days during this year's Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday season.

What happened to turn the project around?

Fruscione said Sunday that he had "negotiated a much better deal that protects the citizens of Niagara Falls" by advancing just $40,000 through Global Spectrum, which manages Conference Center Niagara Falls and Old Falls Street and would oversee Brix & Co.'s progress on the project. The rest of the $225,000 requested from the city would not be disbursed until Brix lines up at least 40 sponsorships and vendor leases.

USA Niagara approved a parallel deal Friday, with $40,000 upfront and the rest payable after it is clear that the project actually will take place. Fruscione said that any profit from the venture would be returned to its public sponsors. In the initial proposal, any profit would have been kept by Brix & Co. as seed money for a similar marketplace next year.

Within an hour after the USA Niagara meeting in Niagara Falls, Rivers announced enthusiastically from his office in Boise, "They approved it unanimously. It's a go."

Fruscione said Sunday that the marketplace resolution will be taken off the table at tonight's meeting of the Council, amended to include Global Spectrum in the oversight process and to limit the city's initial commitment to $40,000, which is available in revenue that the city receives from the use of slot machines at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

The Council chairman said he expected that each of those steps would be approved unanimously or nearly unanimously by the five-member Council. Affirmative votes by any three members of the Council would be enough to approve the measure.

So the ball is now back in Rivers' court. Who is he, and what has he done?

Rivers does not consider himself to be an "outsider." He has told the Council that he is a native of Ellicottville and was a frequent visitor to Niagara Falls.

He said the proposed marketplace here would be the largest European-style holiday market and festival in the United States. He said that it would include concerts and other events besides an array of retail vendors.

His company currently is developing the Sonoma County MarketHall at the county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Rivers' office said that the project would "create one of California's largest permanent, year-round marketplaces for fresh produce, artisan foods, unique dining, retail and an animated, family-friendly destination that celebrates the region's legacy of agriculture, wine and craftsmanship."

The company also is providing "advisory services" on urban revitalization in Idaho for the City of Twin Falls.

Rivers created a street festival in 2009 in downtown Boise that featured hundreds of performers and thousands of spectators who watched and voted for their favorite artists as they competed for prizes. Brix & Co. said the 2010 edition attracted 26,000 spectators.

Among his larger projects was the development of Boise Downtown, or BoDo, from 2002 to 2007 that transformed a declining warehouse district and brownfield site into a vibrant urban neighborhood.

That $60 million project, in partnership with Merrill Lynch Capital, included the rehabilitation of historic buildings and the new construction of retail, office, theater, hotel and parking facilities. The City Club of Boise said BoDo has become a household word there.

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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