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Niagara Falls shouldn't build new convention center for at least 6 years, consultant says

A Minneapolis consulting firm says Niagara Falls shouldn't bother erecting a new multi-use facility for sports, conventions and concerts until it beefs up its off-season tourist attractions.

The draft report, obtained by The Buffalo News, says the city and Niagara County should wait at least six years to wait for investments in new attractions to bear fruit before considering such a facility.

Those new attractions range from state efforts to lure developers to create outdoor recreational options and build a lodge in one of the state parks, to private efforts to build water parks downtown.

The report by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International also supported plans to upgrade the Aquarium of Niagara and to buy blighted areas downtown.

The state has announced a $24 million fund to acquire vacant, privately owned land in downtown Niagara Falls.

The report's implied endorsement of the state's plans for Niagara Falls redevelopment annoyed Niagara County Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, who said the state had rejected requests to help fund the study.

"Based on a lot of the people they interviewed, I thought this was how the study would come out," Zona said.

Consultant hired to study feasibility of events center in Niagara Falls

But he said he and Legislature Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt "are on the same page" that the convention center "is not something the county should pursue."

Zona said that attitude could change in the future, depending on how much the market grows.

The idea of building a new multi-use facility was promoted by Richard J. Palladino, business manager of Laborers Local 91, who was interested in creating construction jobs for the building trades as well as bringing more off-season business to Niagara Falls hotels.

He disagreed with the consultants' notion that more attractions should precede construction of a new venue.

"It's like putting the cart in front of the horse, instead of doing it the way you're supposed to," Palladino said. "Obviously, they're not business people. Business people are not going to come into a facility that's way too small."

Niagara Falls has not had a large event venue since the old convention center, built in 1974, was converted into the Seneca Niagara Casino in 2002.

John Kaatz, a principal of the consulting firm, did not respond for a request for comment.

The 48-page report said the notion of constructing an arena or other multi-use venue should wait until at least 2023, unless Niagara University is interested in having its winter sports teams play off campus, which could lead to a joint venture that could go ahead sooner.

In the meantime, the report said, local officials who want to lure larger gatherings should consider improving the existing Conference and Events Center on Old Falls Street, with interior work to provide more meeting space.

The report said that 53 percent of the planners who have used the Conference and Events Center told interviewers they did not need more space.

But 54 percent of state and regional event planners interviewed said they wouldn't even consider holding a meeting in the Falls, because of distance from their membership base, the cost of travel and worries about bad weather in winter.

"To attract these events, it will be important to improve the cleanliness and landscaping and provide a consistent feel/theme throughout downtown," the report said.

The consultants said most state and regional groups prefer to meet during warmer weather, when Niagara Falls' hotels are booked much more solidly than in the winter even without sizable convention business.

The report suggested spending $5 million to $7 million on upgrades to the Conference and Events Center, and also suggested constructing a 250-space parking garage for about $6.25 million.

"You're just doubling down on a bad idea, expanding the Conference Center. It's in the wrong location," Zona contended. The report said it's well-located in relation to hotels and the casino.

A multi-use venue seating 4,000 to 6,000 people would cost $25 million to $40 million, depending on whether it included an ice rink and other sports facilities, the report said. It contended that either way, the facility probably would lose money – up to $461,000 a year, based on similar-sized cities' experiences with such buildings.

The report found no need for a dedicated convention center in Niagara Falls, saying the market for such a building simply doesn't exist. A facility twice as large as the Conference and Events Center could cost up to $75 million and would lose an estimated $1 million a year. Also, the consultants found no need for a sports-only arena, which could cost up to $70 million.

The study cost $113,000, a tab split equally by the city, the county and the state-financed Niagara Falls Tourism Target Zone fund.

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