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Cogan’s ghost hangs over Niagara Falls’ hopes

Eddy Cogan might have left to Niagara Falls a much greater gift than anyone could have imagined when he died in 2003, having failed to fulfill his promise of remaking the beleaguered destination.

Cogan was the Toronto deal maker who swooped into the Falls in the late ’90s and sold the city on a $140 million redevelopment plan that turned out to be more a dream than reality.

Or a nightmare, for a series of city mayors left trying to enforce slippery development deadlines that came and went with little more than a ceremonial shovel in the ground.

But back in 1998, not long after Cogan signed a deal to rebuild the city’s downtown, residents were desperate for something – anything – to be done.

Optimism soared. “There’s no reason we can’t do here what Disney World did for Orlando,” a lawyer said then.

More than a thousand people showed up at the convention center on a January night to hear Cogan sell his dream of remaking Niagara Falls. So many people came that it spilled over into the hallways and was piped through the convention center on closed-circuit television.

Everyone gushed over rosy drawings of bustling storefronts and people. The city’s past disappointments seemed to be in the rear-view mirror.

But Cogan’s deal turned out to be among the city’s biggest disappointments.

Seemingly hard deadlines slipped by with no construction. The public-private partnership descended into hard feelings and lawsuits.

More than a decade later, when staff from the State Comptroller’s Office reviewed the latest iteration of the city’s development deal with the team Cogan put together, they found it “offered little protection” for the city.

That, in the end, was Cogan’s legacy for the Falls. Not the tens of millions of dollars of development he promised. Cogan’s gift was to leave behind a bitterly held cynicism that any one project could deliver a silver bullet.

Drawings of glowing developments no longer cut it. Contracts need to have real protections for the city – legal language that gives public agencies the ability to hold onto public properties and money if promises aren’t kept.

“When it comes to signing on the dotted line, you’ve got to make certain that you’ve made provisions for what if,” said Mayor Paul Dyster, who was first elected to Falls government a few years after the Cogan deal was signed.

Optimism is running high again after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to town this month to show off a vision for an estimated $150 million development dubbed “Wonder Falls.”

This time hope is tempered by hard-luck lessons of failed developments past. And this time, Dyster points out, it’s not the only project on tap. The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is open. New hotels are in the works. A train station is under construction, and the city and its state development agency, USA Niagara, have a vision for the future.

Back when Cogan came to town, that just wasn’t the case.

“You ended up with people walking in the front door of City Hall and saying, ‘Hey, have I got a deal for you,’ ” Dyster said.

It’s not the legacy that Cogan likely envisioned when he set out to remake Niagara Falls. But the broken dreams he left behind left the Falls a far less gullible place.