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For Niagara Falls, a simple, yet revolutionary, vision

David Robinson

Niagara Falls is finally getting the message about tourism: Green is good, and it's important to have a nice place to spend the night.

After decades of trying to surround one of the natural wonders of the world with hideous shopping malls and hokey water parks, the notion that tourists just might prefer a more natural setting for a natural wonder is finally starting to take hold.

The shift got a big boost with the Cuomo administration's first Buffalo Billion plan, which is ripping out the most egregious parts of the old Robert Moses Parkway and sprucing up the park along the Niagara Gorge. The Buffalo Billion, Part 2, continues that focus, although to a lesser extent, with more money to restore the Niagara River gorge to a more natural setting and open up about 125 acres of new parkland.

Taken together, it's a huge step in the right direction for one of the nation's most popular tourist attractions. It's part of an ongoing effort that includes $75 million in improvements to a state park that had gotten pretty shabby, as well as upgrades to more than 775 hotel rooms in a city whose lodging stock had fallen far behind its competition in Canada.

“Niagara Falls had a reputation. The hotels weren't that nice," said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who is president of Empire State Development. "We have steadily upgraded the quality of hotels to expand the mix of customers we can attract to Niagara Falls and keep them longer.”

The numbers are big and the stakes are high.

A gull flies above Bridal Veil Falls. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

More than 9 million people visit Niagara Falls State Park each year – more than Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks combined. But those visitors only tend to linger for a few hours, just long enough to look at the Falls, hop on the Maid of the Mist and maybe take in the Cave of the Winds before they decide they've pretty much seen it all and hit the road.

With so many people already coming to the falls, just getting them to stick around for a few hours more – maybe check out the Albright-Knox or Canalside and stay the night – would have a huge impact economically for a tourism industry that already generates about $2.3 billion in visitor spending annually across the Buffalo Niagara region. If they spent just 5 percent more than they do now, that would be an extra $114 million.

"It's not just Niagara Falls. It's Buffalo, too," Zemsky said. "It's that combination of outdoor adventure tourism and cultural tourism."

There's been a lot of progress, but there's still a long way to go.

The Wonder Falls Resort project to turn the vacant portion of the Rainbow Centre Mall into an entertainment complex still is being hashed out with preferred developer Uniland Development Co. Talk that began during the first part of the Buffalo Billion about adding a wide variety of new outdoors activities, from zip-lining to horseback riding and rock climbing, still is just in the idea state. Meanwhile, a zip-lining attraction opened on the Canadian side last summer.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in a stop in Niagara Falls on Monday, admitted that the Falls needs to create more activities for visitors to give them a reason to stick around longer. Empire State Development is getting ready to seek proposals for visitor activities.

When it does, it's important that it puts a premium on going green.

That's because green can be a powerful calling card for the American side. The Canadian side has its high-rise hotels and the Skylon Tower and its casinos to go with the wax museums and other tourist traps.

But it can't compete with the green space that the American side can offer, especially now that the thinking here has finally started to focus on the water and how to better link it to the Falls and the activities and attractions available to visitors.

Ripping up a two-mile stretch of the old Robert Moses Parkway downstream from the Falls would open up an additional 125 acres along the rim of the gorge, between Whirlpool State Park and Devil's Hole State Park. The idea is to remove invasive species and restore native plants and flowers along more than two miles of the Niagara River shoreline.

DoubleTree Hotel assistant chief engineer Joseph Harris moves an evergreen plant near the main entrance of the newly remodeled hotel on Buffalo Avenue. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said that's important, because green can be a powerful magnet for tourists, especially for younger visitors.

"It's not that they're just investments in tourism, but they're investments that are designed to take us in a greener direction in Niagara Falls," Dyster said.

The Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. recently assembled focus groups as part of an ongoing branding study to compare how people viewed the American and Canadian sides. The results were intriguing.

"People associated the New York side more with the green concept and the natural environment," Dyster said.  "I think we're playing to that."

Even more interesting, the appeal of going green resonated especially strongly with millennials, who now spend more money on tourism-related activities than the Baby Boom generation, said John Percy, the tourism group's president.

"I think we're playing to an emerging market by expanding the park," Dyster said. "The research seems to be suggesting that's the way the market is going. That's great for us in Niagara Falls because it means the types of things that we're doing to bring in tourists also are an addition to our quality of life."

Along the way, the state has spent $75 million for upgrades, including improvements to the Cave of the Winds facility on Goat Island along with upgrades to Terrapin Point, Luna Island and Three Sisters Island, to make the park a better place to visit.

“The upgrades are significant and substantial,” said Christopher Schoepflin, Empire State Development's regional president in Buffalo.

Will New York build on the Buffalo Billion?

But a better park and more green space won't do it, unless visitors also have plenty of appealing choices if they decide to spend the night.

More than $103 million has gone into six recent hotel projects that either have been completed or are close to opening. Another 530 rooms and more than $100 million in new investment could come through three other projects that now are on the drawing board, including a Buffalo Billion project for the state to buy the old Hotel Niagara, with hopes of finding a developer to turn it into a viable hotel once again.

Cuomo's Buffalo Billion II plan would expand on that by building a $25 million National Parks-style lodge with about 80 rooms on Goat Island, most likely on the upstream end, now dominated by a parking lot.

"Our whole strategy is to take advantage of the greatness that you have in Niagara Falls," Zemsky said.

So simple. So sensible. And for the American side, so revolutionary.

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