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Optimism in the Falls; Big-league team of urban experts?taking a fresh look at Rainbow Centre

News that planning experts who have already demonstrated a knack for devising creative ideas to fill vacant space in Buffalo will take on downtown Niagara Falls is worthy of its own "Welcome" sign.

Any signs of life in downtown Niagara Falls should be given a hearty greeting. We've already hailed the opening of the $30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls as the first tenant of the long-derelict former Rainbow Centre mall. The latest work could mean the resuscitation of the rest of the property.

It will be interesting to see what consultants for the Urban Land Institute will recommend for the malls' 200,000 square feet of vacant space.

The institute, based in Washington, D.C., brings a wide range of expertise to the table. These planning experts come from all over the country and have already proven they are more than capable of helping this Rust Belt area.

The land institute's plan for the former Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle and work by the company's experts on other large-scale reuse projects in the region hold it in high regard.

As reported in The News, a 10-member panel of planners, developers, consultants and former officials has already taken its first tour of the Falls. If they are like many visitors to the area, the question of why the area is so underdeveloped should come quickly to mind.

Proximity to the falls is often seen by the casual observer to be a sure winner for business – except in Niagara Falls. It really is an embarrassment to be in the city and see the bustling activity on the Canadian side.

The cavernous space at Rainbow Centre has created a huge challenge for redevelopment, which is why the Land Institute was brought in.

The ground-level retail expected to be part of the reuse should attract shoppers, but officials know they will have to work harder to attract tourists walking out of nearby Niagara Falls State Park. Officials say they know the mall needs to be turned "inside out" so that storefronts face outward.

Even more encouraging is the breadth of experience of the team looking at the problem, including Charles Johnson, a Land Institute panelist who helped plan the transformation of a vacant urban mall in Louisville, Ky., into a food, retail and entertainment destination. Also aboard is Glenda Hood, a former Orlando mayor and Florida secretary of state.

The panel's recommendations will be eagerly awaited. A full report is due by November to the state, which would then issue requests for development proposals in early 2013. A developer would be selected later that year.

Credit goes to National Grid, which is helping pay for the $125,000 study, and to Buffalo developer Mark Hamister for persevering toward building a $22 million boutique hotel across from the mall.

As Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp., said, "There's been a lot of momentum, a lot of progress in downtown Niagara Falls."

After years of neglect, there is renewed optimism that he is right and that large-scale development is finally on the way.