NIAGARA FALLS – A group of tourists on their way to Niagara Falls a decade ago would first notice the crumbling city streets.
Then came the seedy hotels and shuttered attractions of a ghostly downtown.
It looked nothing like the kind of place millions of world travelers flock to each year.
But as Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy cuts the ribbon this morning on Niagara County Community College's $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, the landscape has changed considerably.
It doesn't match the scale of development in Canada, and most acknowledge that the city is years away from realizing its potential.
But after decades of staying away, successful developers are finally becoming interested in the American side of the falls.
"They're starting to turn the corner," Buffalo developer Daniel M. Hamister said. "Niagara Falls is trying to, albeit slowly, turn itself around. The market itself is changing, and it's changing in really good ways."
Hamister plans a $22 million upscale hotel on prime downtown land that will benefit from its proximity to Niagara Falls State Park.
When it opens in 2014, the hotel will draw visitors from the cooking school, which opened this month to rave reviews.
The complex adds young people and restaurants to a vacant stretch of downtown, but it's only the latest project spurred by the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.
"If somebody hasn't been [here] in 10 years, and they come downtown, they're clearly going to see a downtown that is in the midst of a transformation," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "USA Niagara has been at the center of that."
"To me, it's starting to look like a real American city," he added. "If you were to take me through a time machine [from 10 years ago] to today, my reaction would be, ‘Wow. We're finally on the right track.'?"
In all, the state and the city have invested nearly $100 million in downtown projects in the last decade.
That money has leveraged $80 million in private investment, officials say.
But if visitors wonder where that money has gone – even now, few attractions exist on the American side – consider where the city stood just a decade ago.
The roads leading into the city were among the worst in the region.
Most of the lodging around the falls consisted of low-end budget hotels that had not been updated since the 1970s.
And large stretches of vacant, monolithic buildings – scars from the city's failed urban renewal plan – marred the face of downtown.
"It was the kind of place where you could not imagine investment as being possible, and, in fact, you were embarrassed," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development. "I felt bad for the tourists."
Shockingly, those tourists also found it nearly impossible to travel from the city to its namesake attraction.
That's because the Wintergarden arboretum, placed in the middle of a key city block, sealed off any foot traffic once it closed.
In fact, downtown was in such rough shape that tourists looking for the falls had to first pass through a darkened alley that reeked of urine.
"It just didn't have anything going for it back then," said Michael DiCienzo, a Canadian hotel magnate. "It wasn't really a tourist destination."
For years, New York State only made the problem worse by sucking profits from Niagara Falls State Park into a general fund while the area around the natural wonder decayed.
Travelers zipped into and out of the city on the Robert Moses Parkway, a state highway that bypassed the city and separated it from the waterfront.
So when then-Gov. George E. Pataki sized up Niagara Falls in 2001, he promised to reverse Albany's neglect with a Times Square-like transformation.
When Pataki established USA Niagara as a local subsidiary of the state's development arm, leaders predicted a swift turnaround.
But real progress came much slower.
It began with construction of the $20 million downtown conference center and continued with the renovation of the city's hotels, seven of which USA Niagara has helped upgrade.
Most importantly, Dyster said, USA Niagara has formed a long-term development plan for the Falls to counter the shortsighted proposals that have haunted the city for decades.
The centerpiece of that plan is Old Falls Street, a $12 million cobblestone avenue that aims to recreate the Falls Street shopping district of the '50s.
Like Buffalo's Erie Canal Harbor, the street has become a summertime events center and concert venue.
And for the first time in three decades, tourists now have a clear path between Niagara Falls State Park and downtown restaurants and attractions.
The move that made the street possible – the state's 2009 demolition of the Wintergarden – has spurred other recent developments in the downtown core:
*DiCienzo, whose family owns many of the high-rise hotels in Niagara Falls, Ont., has added a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant and patio to its Sheraton hotel, which faces Old Falls Street.
*Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino converted the vacant United Office Building into a $10 million boutique hotel with offices.
*Canadian developer Faisal Merani has refurbished two hotels on the American side and is working on a third.
*Harry Stinson, a Toronto developer, is beginning a $26 million restoration of the historic Hotel Niagara.
"While the market wasn't spectacular when we got in, we have seen steady growth year after year," Merani said. "We see many more travelers coming into the area."
Labor issues in the city also have improved, officials and developers said, without much of the union leadership that in years past was tied to organized crime.
"It's still hanging around," Stinson said, "but those old guys are either locked up or dead."
If the city was in critical condition a decade ago, the state's additions to the tourism infrastructure have stabilized it and, as one developer put it, "laid the foundation" for future growth.
Behind much of the change is Schoepflin, who has largely avoided the spotlight. He knows the challenges of this troubled city more than the average state bureaucrat.
Schoepflin was born in Niagara Falls, where his parents still reside, and trying to resurrect the city is a personal challenge for him. "The easy thing to do is sit back and let people decide your future for you," he said. "I don't accept that for myself or for my city."
City leaders say it's Schoepflin's knowledge of urban planning and development that catches the ear of developers and state leaders. But unlike the long stream of officials who have tried to revive this city, Schoepflin doesn't claim to have a magic elixir for his hometown.
"The idea that the city can decline over a period of time, and can be saved with one project, it's just not reality," Schoepflin said.
Rather, he said, the city will prosper by staying focused on incremental developments that play to the city's natural assets.
Instead of building skyscrapers, wax museums and fun houses like those in Canada, he said, the city should connect its people to the Niagara River, where they can bike, hike, canoe, rock-climb and ride a zip-line within sight of a natural wonder.
Travelers could then transition from the roaring cataracts to an urban setting of streetside shops, restaurants and classy attractions such as the Culinary Institute.
"You could have a very different experience, day to day and even hour to hour, depending on where you were in the city," Schoepflin said. "The way to maximize your potential is to double down on your strengths as opposed to trying to be something you're not."
What's clear to most observers is that such a place will only develop with continued private investment and a sense of cooperation that has long eluded the many layers of local and state government here.
If a successful tourism plan continues to take hold, they say, it could help the city combat its dwindling tax revenues, its high unemployment and its blighted neighborhoods – challenges that continue to hobble Niagara Falls.
But the seeds to the city's resurrection, Schoepflin says, are starting to take root.
"We have just weathered a clearly large storm and turned a corner," he said. "And we have a long way to go, but our hardest days are behind us."
A decade of doing
USA Niagara Development's key projects in Falls
Turned vacant building into a $20 million conference center
Began study to reconfigure the Robert Moses Parkway in the city
Helped upgrade seven of the city's hotels,?including a ?$34 million Sheraton
Helped Carl P. Paladino acquire vacant office building, now a $10 million boutique hotel
Demolished the Wintergarden and built Old Falls Street, connecting Niagara Falls State Park to the city
Funded half ?of the $30 million Culinary Institute ?Niagara Falls, which has spurred other development