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Experience Center's supporters given boost

Supporters of the Niagara Experience Center were unsure why their project, identified by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council as a key tourism opportunity, was shut out of state economic development funding this month.

But top state and regional officials last week gave them encouragement.

"I would encourage anyone that didn't get funded to go back and just keep reapplying and pushing," Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy said during a visit to the Falls. "I think the Experience Center that if they work hard and keep pushing it, sometime they'll be successful."

The state awarded $100.3 million to economic development projects throughout Western New York, including more than $3 million for other projects in the Falls. The Experience Center had asked for $5 million.

Duffy said the funding denial doesn't mean the state disapproves of plans for the interpretive museum, which would target 8 million yearly Falls tourists and direct them to other regional attractions.

"By not getting the nod the first time, it in no way should be considered a negative or in any way a lack of support," he said. "It's just that, there's only so much money to go around."

The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council hasn't lost any confidence in the project's viability.

"We've got a very good feeling about this project going forward," council co-chairman Howard A. Zemsky told The Buffalo News. "We're not discouraged. I would expect that we will continue to strongly advocate for that as a transformative project."

The state hasn't given a definitive reason why the project didn't get funding, but Zemsky said council members knew not every project would be funded this year.

"We knew on the front end that most of our projects, in all likelihood, would either get trimmed back from the amount of funds that they were seeking or in some cases just not make this round," Zemsky said.

How could the current Experience Center proposal be improved?

"Any proposal, when you look at our criteria that are important to the state, the time in which, or likelihood in which, it will be implemented is an important consideration," Zemsky said. "The extent to which the board can continue to move forward in any areas of site control and fundraising are only positives."

Those issues have stalled the project in the past.

The Experience Center has previously carried a $100 million price tag, and the state's USA Niagara Development Corp. has set aside $3 million for the project. Organizers said they are "revisiting" the cost of the project, which could include a park and amphitheater.

The regional economic development board has expressed interest in making an updated presentation to members of the regional economic development council as soon as January.

"I know that a lot of work that had been done earlier could stand to be updated, and that would be helpful in moving the project forward," said Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who served as the board's chairman before running for office.