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With state’s purchase of the Hotel Niagara, a symbol of the reviving city may again open for business

There are two buildings in the skyline of Niagara Falls that indicate this was a city of mighty ambitions in the early 20th century.

One is the former United Office Building, transformed by developer Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development Co. into the Giacomo Hotel. The other is the Hotel Niagara.

The Hotel Niagara remains a giant, vacant shell. It is the neglected 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room.

The fate of this historic hotel could change with the announcement that it is to be purchased by a state agency using funds from the Buffalo Billion.

USA Niagara Development Corp., the Niagara Falls arm of Empire State Development, plans to seek proposals from private developers to restore and reopen the structure, a 12-story, 193-room hotel at 201 Rainbow Blvd., listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An infusion of $5 million from the Buffalo Billion, the state fund that thankfully keeps on giving for economic development in the region, will be used to buy the hotel, closed since 2007. It will also pay the expenses of a full inspection, insurance and holding costs before it is resold to a new developer.

The hotel’s current owner, JSK International Corp., is controlled by Canadian businessman Harry Stinson. The corporation is to be paid $4.4 million, the same price Reception Hotels and Resorts would have paid last year had plans, which involved reopening as a Radisson, not fallen through.

A vacant Hotel Niagara, built in 1924, stands against the skyline as a constant reminder to residents of dashed hopes, the ones drawn up when Robert Moses was building the parkway that bears his name and when it was believed that the core city would have a quarter million population in a couple of decades.

Getting close to those long-ago dreams would be great, if such a wish could be granted. But getting there and preserving the sought-after Americana tourists crave involves saving this important piece of downtown history. USA Niagara Development Corp.’s purchase of the hotel clears the way for finding a developer with the wherewithal to complete the project.

The agency has a 90-day inspection period, including environmental studies, for closing on the purchase. Then it’s off to a short-term ownership, retaining title for about two years.

The request for proposals from developers should be distributed around midyear, and a developer chosen by the end of the year. Whoever is chosen will be eligible for significant historic preservation tax credits, possibly $5 million or $6 million.

Moving forward as a hotel is probably the highest and best use of this historic structure, although there has been discussion of student housing, and there was once a banquet area on the first floor. So there are options.

It will take a lot of money for a developer to breathe life back into this monolith against the skyline, but whoever it is should be assured that there will be support.

Restoring the Hotel Niagara has very high practical value, but it also has a high symbolic value for a city that shares its famous name.