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Casino cash gives Falls its future back

He wouldn’t come right out and say it, because the coming months call for caution, but the larger story is obvious: Niagara Falls just got its future back.

The border town beaten flat over the past half-century had risen to one knee in recent years. It was elevated partly by a tide of Seneca Niagara Casino cash and an enlightened mayor committed – in clear violation of the city’s history of political hackdom – to aiding recovery instead of helping himself to a piece of the action.

Paul Dyster is an NBA-tall, eco-friendly leader who name-drops Jane Jacobs and thinks beyond the next election cycle. Long-term recovery plans had been made. With a half-dozen new or reinvented downtown hotels on the horizon, with a stretch of the river-blocking Robert Moses Parkway set for oblivion, with the new Culinary School up and the commerce-killing Wintergarden down, it was possible to imagine – without the aid of mind-altering substances – the resurrection of the City That Progress Forgot.

Then Andrew Cuomo inherited a dispute with the Senecas over territorial gambling rights. The collateral damage, as the Senecas held back the state/city share of casino profits, included prospects for the Falls’ revival. The city’s credit rating sank nearly to junk-bond depths. It was just months from the fiscal cliff when the warring factions recently made peace. The Senecas will soon release the city’s $89 million cut of casino cash. Let the recovery resume.

Dyster told me Friday he was “relieved” by the reconciliation. Talk about understatement. Casino cash is set to grease everything from a new high-speed-rail-ready train station, to finishing the 1863 Customs House rehab, to demolishing the abominable enclosed walkway that blocks storefronts along the downtown spine, to new-build or face-lifted downtown hotels. “We’re reaching the point where our downtown accommodations are catching up,” Dyster told me. “But we need to do better with the entertainment piece. We’re OK, with our natural attractions, when the weather is good. But what about in winter? Nighttime? When it’s raining?”

I am not a big fan of casinos, but the ones that make the most civic sense are in tourist hubs like Niagara Falls, where visitors drop most of the dollars. The Falls has, by design, used its share of casino cash to lift itself off the mat. There has been enough traction that Dyster hesitated during a Friday tour of downtown to verbally commit casino-cash handouts to planned hotels. The more that gets done, the less enticement developers need. We soon may see the day when anyone asking for a handout gets his hand slapped. That will be the true mark of recovery.

For three-plus years, Niagara Falls siphoned its rainy-day fund and borrowed bucks to meet budgets. In the short term it has to go slow, re-paving roads and re-filling piggy banks as a sign of civic sobriety to rate-restoring credit agencies. Which is why Dyster hesitates to talk vision until after the potholes get filled. But the bigger picture is back on the wall, nailed up by casino cash.