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Youthful memories give rise to Niagara Community Center

Gary Hall has such fond childhood memories playing at the Boys & Girls Club on 17th Street in Niagara Falls.

Hall has remained involved with the club as a board member for 25 to 30 years and currently as an emeritus member, but the local businessman and philanthropist is now looking to establish his own place to enhance the lives of city youth.

After two years of planning and fundraising, the Niagara Community Center officially opened its doors in November with a mission to become a place where children and teenagers in the surrounding communities can grow into the leaders of tomorrow.

“I’ve been working on it for a long time,” Hall said. “Basically I wanted to do something in our area to provide some space for kids to be doing healthy athletic things that didn’t exist.”

The nearly 22,000-square-foot, 50-foot-tall athletic facility at 530 66th St. between Cataract Elementary School and Niagara Catholic High School offers educational and sports opportunities through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, the Police Athletic League, Niagara University and Niagara Catholic High School and a sponsorship with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The building’s schedule has been filled with literacy and study programs, as well as sports programs teaching baseball, cheerleading, lacrosse, soccer and tennis, among others.

“There was demand as soon as we opened, but we didn’t manage it very well,” Hall said, “and that’s why my son got involved. That’s what he’s good at, keeping everything busy and organized, bringing more groups in, getting the most use out of the facility.”

Gary Jr. has served as The Niagara’s executive director since March, when he came over from his role in business development at his father’s Lewiston business, Waste Technology Services.

Interest in the facility has spread pretty quickly just by word of mouth. Hall is expecting close to 3,000 kids will make their way through The Niagara every month when school starts back up in the fall.

“Sometimes people just drive by and pop in to see what it is,” Gary Jr. said. “We had a guy here come play tennis, and he ended up being a baseball coach for his kid’s team in Grand Island, so it just builds from there. Other kids would come in for soccer and baseball, then they’d know someone who knew someone.

“Plus, my dad’s name is pretty well respected in the community and known. So when people knew he was doing this, the superintendent of the schools and the presidents of these organizations knew what was going on and wanted to be a part of it and bring people in here.”

There aren’t any full-time employees other than Hall's son, so everyone who comes brings their own program managers and coaches. Then it’s just a matter of coordinating the logistics, which can get crazy because of the demand.

“Our fee structure is everyone can come for free,” Hall said, “but we do have a fee structure for travel teams and groups that are typically used to paying because we need to pay the bills.”

Hall’s initial plan was to build the facility on Center Street in Lewiston, not far from his business, but there was some pushback due to the size and height of the building.

He then went to Niagara University and looked for space to put it on campus. As he thought more about that, he realized the location was isolated and it would be difficult for kids in the community to get to.

So Hall found and purchased the mostly-unused land on 66th Street from the Diocese of Buffalo.

“This was probably the best thing we saw because of its proximity to the schools,” Hall said. “Kids can come here from the neighborhood. They can come here on their bikes. It’s really better suited for Niagara Falls kids in particular.

“We didn’t want to have a lease agreement or have someone else own the land. We bought the land from the diocese so we could kind of control our own destiny and do the things we wanted to do.”

The architect originally laid out a plan for a $4 million building, but Hall only had a little more than $2 million raised.

“The challenge was, how do we build a $4 million facility with $2 million and change?” Hall said. “What happened was is a lot of folks in the community stepped up and either did work at cost or did work at a little bit more than their cost just to kind of cut down the overhead and really make it work.

“We ended up doing it for $2.7 million and we had $2.2 million, so we had to take a half a million dollar construction loan out from the bank,” Hall added. “So we’re still paying back that loan, and that’s why we’re doing a lot of fundraising things and we’ve gone to a number of foundations that have helped us.”

Among the major funding partners include Blue Cross Blue Shield, M&T Bank and The John R. Oishei Foundation. Hall is hopeful that the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation will be next.

“They’ve done a lot already and this really fits their footprint,” Hall said. “This is really what they want to do, and we’re hopeful they’re going to really help us in a big way.”

Which, in turn, would help Hall continue to have a positive impact on the future of his hometown.

“It just makes the dream a reality when we see the kids come in here and have fun,” Hall said.

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