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Boundaries expanded to develop the Falls; Aquarium, culture site included in 21 acres

The USA Niagara Development District has expanded by more than 21 acres north of Main Street to include the Aquarium of Niagara and the city's proposed Cultural District -- a move that comes as the aquarium plans to double in size during the next five years.

The board of directors for USA Niagara Development Corp., the local arm of the state's economic-development agency, voted unanimously Tuesday to expand the boundary at the urging of Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, D-Buffalo.

"We all know that the main goal here is not just to [create] economic development and create jobs, but to keep people in Niagara Falls more than 2 1/2 hours," Grisanti told the board. "My goal is to steal business from Southern Ontario."

Officials from the aquarium, which used $90,000 in state development funds to create a master plan, intend to upgrade the roof and observation deck.

In addition, they plan to build a second 32,000-square-foot facility next to their existing building. That step may be five years away, officials said.

The facility now will be eligible to apply for state money, and aquarium officials said the ruling will also help them solicit greater private or nonprofit donations.

"It's our time," said aquarium development director Gay Molnar. "We feel we can definitely add something to the region and city as one of the anchors, with the Discovery Center, from the entrance to the north and also to the state park."

The expansion extends the district north to Spruce Avenue along the Robert Moses Parkway.

Ceretto said the expansion would strengthen the tourism industry and add value north of Main Street, and Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the extension would assist in the evolution of a new Cultural District anchored by the aquarium and the Gorge Discovery Center in Niagara Falls State Park.

The Cultural District was first described in the city's 2009 Comprehensive Plan as one of the city's "Big Moves," which would include the expansion of the aquarium, creation of an outdoor amphitheater and gorge views, trails, recreation and festival areas.

It would allow pedestrians and bicycle riders to move easily from the rim of the Niagara Gorge to the northern portion of downtown.

The removal of the parkway's northern section would enable the long-term vision for the Cultural District. Funds also could be used to help eliminate blight or for public or private development of a nearby city-owned park, said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara.

While the expansion comes with no guarantee of state funds, USA Niagara will now be available to assist aquarium officials.

Ceretto and Grisanti have been advocating the expansion for months. They contend that the inclusion of the Aquarium of Niagara into the zone is essential and that, by its exclusion, it is missing out on key money for needed repairs.

In June, they introduced legislation calling for the boundary's expansion. The legislation passed unanimously in the Senate and lingered in an Assembly committee.

The lawmakers urged the board of directors at a July 19 meeting to expand the development zone and later wrote to USA Niagara's executive vice president and general counsel, Leecia R. Eve, and asked whether the board had the authority to expand the zone.

On Aug. 3, Eve wrote that the agency's directors do have such authority.

"I'm thinking, there's four acres of land here," Grisanti said. "There's got to be something that can be done to get out of the shadow of Marineland."

Dyster stipulated that the expansion should not focus solely on the aquarium, but on the entire district.

"We must keep our eye on the larger prize of realizing not just a better aquarium," Dyster said in a news release, "but a framework for a comprehensive program to revitalize the entire northern portion of downtown in which an enhanced aquarium would play a major role."


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