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Interest in restoring landmark hotel is another sign of progress for Niagara Falls

The Hotel Niagara may be about to go the way of the old United Office Building and Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel. Which is to say, heading up.

Several developers showed up last week to assess the condition of the historic but vacant hotel that sits on prime real estate, hardly a stone’s throw from one of the world’s most famous natural wonders. Temporary home to celebrities and at least one president, the curved-front landmark has been a symbol of Niagara Falls’ decline. Its restoration would be a sign that better times are in the wind.

The Hotel Niagara was, in its day, what the Statler was to Buffalo: a mark of elegance. That day seemed to have passed, but developer Mark Croce is in the long-term game of restoring the Statler, and at least one of the developers who came to examine the Hotel Niagara last week already has a record of rescuing once-beautiful hotels with sagging faces.

The Hotel Syracuse was built in 1924 and closed in 2004. Because of the passion of developer Ed Riley, the hotel was restored to its smallest details and reopened this month as the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, with 261 rooms. The response from the community has been nearly spiritual.

The Hotel Niagara, which also opened in 1924 and once played host to President John F. Kennedy, Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., crime boss Al Capone and, it is believed, Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Joe DiMaggio. It deteriorated in its later years and finally shut its doors as a low-rent hotel in 2007.

Riley was among 50 people – including developers from Buffalo, Niagara Falls, New York City and Canada – attending an informational meeting and tour of the 12-story Classical Revival building.

A state agency, USA Niagara Development Corp., acquired the building in March and issued a request for proposals last month. The goal is to restore lodging, possibly residences and food and beverage services to the former hotel. The cost of the project is estimated to be around $20 million. It would be eligible for historic tax credits, which defray costs and have been especially useful, helping to make possible the restorations of the former United Office Bulding into the Giacomo hotel across the street in Niagara Falls and the Hotel @ Lafayette in downtown Burfalo.

Things are starting to happen in Niagara Falls. The trick will be for city leaders to encourage this healthy development. With the right approach, the city could be on the brink of a virtuous cycle of renewal. And the restored Hotel Niagara could be its centerpiece.