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Falls mayor says region is poised for growth

Supporters of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster insist his big-picture perspective is what’s needed in a city long plagued by blight and controversy. His critics have challenged many of his priorities and policies.

Dyster sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to discuss economic development, efforts to bolster tourism and upcoming discussions about whether the region should build a new stadium. Here is a summary of some of the issues covered in an interview that is part of the “In Focus” series.

Meyer: You’ve expressed confidence that Niagara Falls is poised for transformational redevelopment. How would you respond to cynics who say, “We’ve heard that all before.”

Dyster: There’s an old saying that nothing in this life lasts forever ... Western New York as a whole has been trapped in this downward economic spiral for pretty much most of my adult life, and I’m 59. Things have to change eventually. Markets change things, but I think policy changes things also. For us, the confluence here is that we came out of the Great Recession still relatively stable economically. We were perhaps less impacted than some other regions in the country. We were poised for growth. And right at that point, the governor of the state, Andrew Cuomo, decided that he was going to make it a top priority of his administration to act very boldly, very decisively to try to reverse the decades of economic decline. And that’s a policy that’s focused on the Buffalo metro area, but it very much includes Niagara Falls.

Meyer: What policies are being changed or will be changed to bring about this redevelopment?

Dyster: Economic development in the State of New York as a whole is now being done in an entirely different way. There’s a bottom-up process involving regional economic development councils that include mostly not elected officials, but people from all different walks of life, including academics, businesspeople and so on, putting together future plans for regions. As part of our plan, tourism was identified as a key industry sector going forward. Our plan then, I think, emboldened the governor to go forward with the Buffalo Billion initiative, which, once again, focused on tourism as one of the key initiatives ... That’s led to a major focus by the state on trying to jump-start tourism here in Niagara Falls. And we’re jump-starting something that already seems to be growing.

Meyer: Can we quantify that?

Dyster: If you look at visitorship, we have roughly 8 million visitors that are coming to our state park every year ... It’s still not as great as perhaps the 14 million people that are coming to the Canadian side, but there are more visitors coming to the park at Niagara Falls than are visiting other famous national landmarks like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone

... Another sign of the health of the tourism economy: We have, by my count – and I think I’m starting to lose count – something like eight projects for hotel construction or major renovation currently underway in Niagara Falls.

Meyer: One plan involves the Hamister Group’s $25 million project.

Dyster: That project is moving forward. There’s not a shovel in the ground yet, but the project is moving forward.

Meyer: There are some people out there who are still a little skeptical.

Dyster: The skepticism of people about Western New York in general and Niagara Falls specifically being able to move forward economically is one of the major obstacles to moving forward economically. Especially in a tourist city. If you’re not in love with yourself and selling yourself to the world, why would you expect the world to fall in love with you?

Meyer: Nik Wallenda announced that he is going to be wowing crowds over at Darien Lake. Some have said it was at least some resistance on the part of Niagara Falls officials, including yourself, that prompted it.

Dyster: The people who are saying that are lying, OK? That’s absolutely not true, and we’ve made it clear to the different business entities that were working to try to bring a sort of interim Wallenda attraction to Niagara Falls that we would do anything we could to facilitate that ... What we would like to see is a permanent presence here of some sort where he was a headliner in a facility that maybe had other types of entertainment going on. We’re working on a project like that, but that’s not going to happen in one summer.

Meyer: One of the big issues is whether the region should build a new stadium. The governor has put you on this committee to look at the viability of a new facility. In Buffalo, Mayor Brown has already said that if a facility is going to be built, he’s going to push to try to get it in his city. Are you of the same view here? Do you think a stadium should be built in Niagara Falls?

Dyster: I’m very open-minded about this. I view my appointment by the governor not as an attempt to put somebody on there who is going to spend all their time advocating for a Niagara Falls stadium, but rather putting somebody on there who is going to look thoughtfully at all the issues involved.