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Niagara Falls hotel owner pitches $15M 'tropical paradise' on Third Street

Michael DiCienzo canceled his plan for a water park at his downtown Niagara Falls hotel last year, blaming the state's refusal to assist with financing.

Now he's pitching something similar that he thinks will draw a better reaction from state officials.

DiCienzo plans a $15 million year-round, beach-themed facility next to the Sheraton Niagara Falls on Third Street, but he said it will be a public facility open to all, including visitors staying in other hotels.

"It's just a tropical paradise," he said.

The 33,000-square-foot facility received a $2 million thumbs-up from the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency on Wednesday. The NCIDA approved a grant from the Cataract Tourism Fund it controls, but only on the condition that a matching $2 million grant is approved by Empire State Development by Dec. 31.

However, Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster charged late Wednesday that DiCienzo misled the NCIDA board about the status of the project site.

DiCienzo said he has "a signed contract" to buy the site from the city for $189,000, while the city would give him a $300,000 grant. Those provisions, he said, were left over from the water park project.

"He should have given an accurate representation of the state of play to the IDA board," Dyster said. "This agreement is not in effect."

DiCienzo said he and Dyster signed a contract Oct. 3, 2017, adding that he never received any notice from the city that it was no longer operative.

NCIDA Chairman Stephen F. Brady said the board knew DiCienzo doesn't own the property, but he told them he had a deal to buy it.

"We'll have to take another look at it," Brady said.

Dyster also charged that the rendering DiCienzo gave was "a picture of a development in Japan, Photoshopped onto the site and reduced seven times."

An online photo of a now-demolished indoor beach in Japan, called Seagaia, does look like DiCienzo's rendering.

DiCienzo didn't deny it. "It's an inspirational image," he said.

DiCienzo said his plan will help keep visitors in Niagara Falls longer and also give the city a better chance to attract off-season visitors, as well as conventions at the nearby Conference Center Niagara Falls.

The "Niagara Beach and Surf Club" would have a retractable roof, an interactive wave pool the size of a football field, jumbo video screens, a restaurant and bar, with surfing and saltwater lagoons allowing guests to swim with marine creatures.

"It's a much better concept in my opinion, and in the state's opinion, to help the Conference Center," DiCienzo said. "They felt this was a better fit for their overall vision."

However, DiCienzo, owner of American Niagara Hospitality, said he's willing to spend $11 million of his own money, but not $15 million.

"This (NCIDA) grant is contingent on the state, so if we don't get the state grant, the project goes away," he said.

He was optimistic about receiving the state money, because of the change at the top of USA Niagara Development Corp., the local affiliate of Empire State Development.

Anthony Vilardo, the former City of Niagara Falls business development director, replaced Christopher Schoepflin as USA Niagara president a few months ago. DiCienzo said Vilardo has given him a much better reception than Schoepflin did.

"I can assure you, it's completely different," DiCienzo said. Vilardo "has accepted the application. The other one, they wouldn't even accept."

"Mr. DiCienzo has contacted USAN and we are in discussions," an Empire State Development spokeswoman said.

"This is a way different concept, a new, vibrant concept that hasn't been used before," NCIDA member William L. Ross said.

NCIDA member Joan G. Aul voted no, concerned that the state-funded tourism fund would soon go dry. The $2 million for DiCienzo's project accounts for about half the fund's balance.

DiCienzo said the surf club would create the equivalent of 40 full-time jobs. He said if the money is in place, he plans to start construction in fall 2020 and open in fall 2021.

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