Share this article

print logo

Higgins offers Falls tourism board his perspectives on going forward

NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Falls should have gotten a new aquarium out of the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project.

Third Street should be a place to show what a revitalized Niagara Falls would look like.

And the city and the Office of State Parks should have a better relationship, rather than an adversarial one.

Rep. Brian Higgins staked out those positions on the Falls during a dialogue with the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board last week. Invited to give input on the board’s ideas regarding tourism in the Falls, the congressman also talked about his ideas for how the board and the city should approach the future.

He likened the Falls’ future to the development of Buffalo’s waterfront, which after decades of talk has only shown actual progress in the last five years.

“You’re reaching a tipping point,” said Higgins, D-Buffalo. “You have to be clear about what you want and who you want to help you achieve it.”

The advisory board, which is appointed by the City Council to make recommendations on tourism-related matters, meets publicly twice a month to talk about various tourism issues.

Earlier this year, it was the leading group in opposing the location of a State Park Police barracks on the Niagara Gorge. Last month, the panel recommended the city create a “tourism director” post in City Hall.

Like the Park Police station and tourism post issue, the group acknowledges it faces an uphill battle to solve many tourism issues, said Shawn J. Weber, the panel’s vice chairman.

The Falls is “fighting for nickels” while being surrounded by outside agencies and authorities like the New York Power Authority, State Parks and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which seem to be raking in revenue from operations in the Falls, Weber said.

Higgins told Weber and the rest of the panel’s members in attendance at last Monday’s meeting that it isn’t a zero-sum situation in which one group’s gain has to mean another group’s loss.

“The clearer you are about what it is you want to do and why you want to do it, I think, the more receptive those who you’re asking to help you will be,” the lawmaker said.

In terms of tourist attractions, Higgins said, the city should have received a new aquarium as a result of negotiations with the Power Authority over the federal relicensing of its Niagara Power Project. “A new aquarium, state-of-the-art, world-class, would have been a no-brainer,” the congressman said.

A 2005 settlement between the Power Authority and seven entities in Niagara County, including Niagara Falls and the city school district, helped get the authority a new, 50-year federal operating license.

In exchange for supporting that license, the communities where the power project is located got a settlement of annual cash payments and low-cost electricity estimated in 2007 to be worth $1 billion to the Niagara County entities over the life of the deal.

According to Higgins, what the Niagara County entities got was “disbursed so broadly, it really failed to have meaning.”

A new aquarium would have helped revitalize Third Street, the congressman said, adding that the street should be the site of a “great potential demonstration project of what the new Niagara Falls is going to look like.”

The street should have a lot of nice places, including restaurants and an arts and cultural component, perhaps something that builds on the large Italian ethnic heritage of the area. Having 10 more restaurants would create a destination that could draw tourists, including those who stay on the Canadian side of the Falls, he said.

Higgins also told the panel it was “unconscionable” for it to have an adversarial relationship with state parks officials.

The issue with the Park Police station should never have gotten to the point that it did, he said, with the project having had to be temporarily stopped because of a dispute over location.

Had there been a healthy relationship between State Parks and the city, it probably wouldn’t have, Higgins said.

And the tourism panel needs to know what it wants to do and assert itself, he said, though that doesn’t mean to the point of being antagonistic.

Many people share an affection for the city, and everybody wants it to succeed, Higgins said, adding, “You’ve got to stand up for yourself.”