NIAGARA FALLS - Niagara County will spend $50,000 in 2017 to study the feasibility of a new multiuse facility in or near Niagara Falls to host conventions, sports events and concerts.
At its budget adoption meeting Dec. 13, the County Legislature voted to allocate the $50,000 from its share of the Seneca Niagara Casino slot machine profits to pay for the study of building a new convention center that's being pushed by local construction unions.
If it's built, the events center would in effect replace the former Niagara Falls Convention Center, which was underutilized before the building and the surrounding land was handed over to the Seneca Nation of Indians in 2002. The convention center was converted into the Seneca Niagara Casino.
Richard Palladino, business manager of Laborers Local 91, is the prime mover pushing for the study. He said he thinks such a center is needed in downtown Niagara Falls.
However, Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, who has been pushing the idea with his Legislature colleagues, said that location isn't definite.
"This could be anywhere in Niagara County," Zona said. "We just want a nonpartisan, unbiased study."
Although no quotes have been sought, Palladino said he expects the $50,000 will be enough to pay for the study.
Besides the possible economic boost, such a major project would help the building trades, too. "This was the worst year Laborers Local 91 has had in 23 years for employment," Palladino said.
He formed a corporation earlier this year called Niagara County Event Center LLC, and in August it submitted a funding request to the New York Power Authority for a feasibility study.
"We've not heard a word," Palladino said of his request to the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, a NYPA committee that decides how to spend uncommitted funds received from selling Niagara Power Project electricity on the open market.
NYPA spokesman Paul DiMichele said the NYPA allocation board has requested more information about the proposal. "That additional information has not been received yet. The applicant will be invited to file a full application to provide a more in-depth understanding of the proposal.
Zona said the county has waited long enough for NYPA to act.
The Legislature, whose 11-member Republican majority comes entirely from outside Niagara Falls, has consistently refused to allow any allocation of the casino cash to Niagara Falls, on the grounds that Niagara Falls already receives its own casino share, set in state law.
In the past couple of years, since casino cash started flowing to the county again, the Legislature has approved direct payments to every city and town except Niagara Falls. For 2017, the Legislature decided to end those payments. keeping an estimated $615,000 to help balance its budget.
But the Legislature will continue to use 25 percent of the casino cash, estimated at $205,000 in 2017, for a "community development fund," which in practice parcels out a few thousand dollars at a time to favored projects and organizations in the districts of the non-Niagara Falls legislators. Each allotment requires a vote of the full Legislature.
While the county's official position is that the events center doesn't necessarily have to be placed in Niagara Falls, Palladino doesn't see things that way.
"I'm not promoting any spot except downtown, because that's where it belongs," the union official said.
John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the county's tourism agency, isn't committing his support to the project yet.
"I'm very much in support of the feasibility study," Percy said. He said it could answer the question of what size of an events center would suit the Niagara Falls market.
"We have a conference center that is a great facility that's being utilized, very effectively for our marketplace," Percy said, referring to the Conference Center Niagara Falls on Old Falls Street.
The former convention center, built in the mid-1970s, never lived up to the hopes of those who supported it. Major conventions were few, and as a sports venue it wasn't completely satisfactory, either. Niagara University played men's basketball games there for several years before heading back to the Gallagher Center on campus.
By the time it was turned over to the Senecas, "it needed millions and millions of dollars in renovations and rehabilitation," Percy said. He said the city did not have enough hotel rooms decades ago to support the former convention center.
Today, downtown Niagara Falls has about 4,000 hotel rooms, Percy estimated. That's about twice as many as it had in the 1990s, when the old convention center was dying.
Palladino said those new hotels are a major reason why an events center is needed downtown.
"Take a look at all the hotels built with private money," he said, "and if we don't supply them with a way to fill those beds for five months during the winter, they're going to go bust."
To try to line up state support for the project, Palladino said he met recently with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who wanted to know where in Niagara Falls it would be built.
"It doesn't matter to me," Palladino said. "It just matters to the community, because we need it."