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Uniland named developer of $150 million Niagara Falls project

NIAGARA FALLS – A $150 million redevelopment of one of Niagara Falls’ most famous “white elephants” was announced Friday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as part of the Buffalo Billion initiative.

A public-private partnership between the state and Uniland Development Co. is expected to transform the former Rainbow Centre mall into a year-round destination for tourists. The project is also expected to transform downtown Niagara Falls and be a catalyst for visitors to lengthen their stay by offering 300 hotel rooms, themed restaurants, a spa, an indoor water park and a “daredevil adventure center” that will bear the name of famed wire walker Nik Wallenda.

Uniland envisions its “Wonder Falls” resort as a family-friendly greeting point for the 8 million tourists who come to see the falls every year, where people can learn more about the area, regardless of whether they are staying in the hotel.

“We want to make sure whatever we put in here, whether it be the theme of the water park, or the themes of the restaurants, that they complement Niagara Falls and the history of Niagara Falls,” said Michael Montante, vice president of Uniland Development.

Part of the former mall, which covers two blocks, will be demolished to make way for a 15-story tower, which will house a full-service hotel and offer rooftop dining. A new pedestrian thoroughfare under the new complex will break up what had been a megablock of concrete that discouraged pedestrian traffic. Retail stores on the first floor and windows will help transform what had been a “Berlin Wall of downtown Niagara Falls,” as Mayor Paul A. Dyster put it.

“It’s not even the normal eyesore,” Dyster said of the current structure, which has sat mostly vacant for the last 15 years. “It’s kind of an iconic eyesore. It’s the classic white elephant. This is a building that was created almost as an afterthought to the construction of a parking ramp.”

The mothballed mall is on prime property downtown, close to the falls and bounded by Old Falls Street, First Street, Rainbow Boulevard and Niagara Street, but for years city and state leaders could not attract private investment.

“Today is about investing in assets,” Cuomo said.

Upstate has many symbols of lost opportunity, and for years the Rainbow Centre mall was one, Cuomo said.

“It was a fantastic opportunity waiting to be developed,” he said.

Wonder Falls is Uniland’s first investment in Niagara Falls in a very long time, Montante said.

An improving economy and attention from the state are drawing more interest from developers, he said.

The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, fronting Old Falls Street, opened in 2012 and takes up a third of the mall. That space will remain untouched, and Uniland is in talks with Niagara County Community College to expand the school, as well as the college’s hospitality programs, into the new structure, Montante said.

A parking ramp will be retained, and can support more levels, which could be added, depending on demand.

The project will create 1,500 direct and indirect jobs during construction and more than 300 permanent jobs when the resort opens.

Information on Wallenda’s “daredevil adventure” were scarce Friday, as were details about the project timeline, how it will be financed, how much taxpayer funding will be involved, and whether the city will sell or lease the mall to Uniland.

The city owns the vacant portion of the mall, and city lawmakers will vote on whether to accept the recommendation of Uniland as the preferred developer. A development agreement must be negotiated and approved by the Council.

The design phase could take 18 months, and an unspecified construction period would follow. Uniland is working with Cannon Design and the hospitality giant Delaware North Cos., which provides concessions in Niagara Falls State Park.

Uniland was competing against another proposal and was chosen by a panel that included representatives from Empire State Development Corp., USA Niagara, a state economic development agency, and the City of Niagara Falls.

The Cuomo administration announced in August 2013 that two groups had passed a pre-screening process, allowing them to submit specific proposals for 200,000 square feet on the north side of the property.

The other group was headed by Intertrust Development, a company run by the Canadian DiCienzo family, which has hospitality interests on both sides of the border. Intertrust’s partners were LPCiminelli, JCJ Architecture and Landry’s.

Intertrust’s proposal would have included a hotel, franchise restaurants and a retail plaza.