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Comedy Hall of Fame seen as unlikely for Niagara Falls

NIAGARA FALLS – The National Comedy Hall of Fame, which several years ago floated an unsuccessful proposal to locate on the Buffalo waterfront, seems unlikely to do any better in an effort to find a home in Niagara Falls.

The not-for-profit organization, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., has a purchase agreement for the old Jenss store on Main Street.

However, that deal will lapse Friday unless the Comedy Hall can show that it has financing to carry out its project. It appears that will not be forthcoming.

Comedy Hall President Tony Belmont said last week that his group has been “spinning our wheels for 30 months” trying to find a foothold in Niagara Falls.

Real estate broker Richard Sterben said the Comedy Hall was rejected by Albany in its efforts to obtain a grant to pay for the renovation of the old department store.

He said the Comedy Hall was interested in the $40 million Niagara Falls development challenge announced earlier this month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “It’s dependent on some of the grants that come out of that,” Sterben said.

“The whole deal is subject to the grant,” Belmont confirmed.

The grant request was a nonstarter, City Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo said, because the Comedy Hall doesn’t own the Jenss building.

“Ownership is needed before any assistance can flow,” Piccirillo said, “because there are certain guarantees that need to be met.”

Sterben said the Comedy Hall made a purchase agreement for the vacant store, agreeing to pay $750,000, but Belmont said his group put down only a $1,000 deposit.

“It’s a contingency contract,” said Richard A. Hastings, president of Niagara North, which owns the empty former department store.

The contingency was that the Comedy Hall needed a funding commitment by the end of the month. Hastings said he gave it a one-month extension once. This month, “I don’t believe I’ll extend it,” he said.

“We’re way overpaying for what the building’s worth,” Belmont said. Its assessed valuation is $48,000.

Belmont said Hastings sought an additional deposit, but he refused to post one.

Sterben and Belmont tried to pin the blame for the apparent failure of the project on the city. They said the Jenss store was not eligible for a state tourism grant because the 1700 block of Main Street, where the store is located, is not considered part of a formal tourism district.

Sterben said he hoped city officials would get to Cuomo and ask for help, but it seems that hasn’t happened.

“If the city’s serious about an entertainment district centering on Main Street, that building’s got to be renovated or torn down, because it’s an eyesore,” Belmont said.

Piccirillo said he didn’t think the community would support funding for a project whose promoters don’t own the site they wish to use. He also said he wasn’t that impressed with the Comedy Hall.

“They had for a very short period of time a storefront in a strip mall in Florida,” Piccirillo said.

“I told Richard [Sterben] my board feels nothing’s going to happen. The City of Niagara Falls is completely incompetent,” Belmont said. “Then you’ve got this councilman [Glenn A. Choolokian] who says the city’s not going to contribute to private development. Well, that’s not how it works in economic development across the country.”