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Here's how Niagara Falls wants to spend $10M in state grant money

A new hotel on a vacant lot next to the Amtrak station and a large academic building that might be operated by Niagara University near the Public Safety Building are among the projects the City of Niagara Falls proposed in the $10 million state grant it just secured.

The city also suggested $2 million in grants toward a $10 million fund that could be tapped to renovate and preserve historic buildings, such as the old Jenss Department Store, and an $800,000 fund to improve residential properties in the Main Street area, which the city now calls the Bridge District.

"We want people to live there and work there and shop and recreate there," said Thomas J. DeSantis, the city's acting economic development director. "The reason Main Street has failed over the years is the people who supported the stores moved away."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called it "a smart plan" when he announced Wednesday that Niagara Falls was this year's Western New York winner of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

The summary of the application package, released by Mayor Paul A. Dyster's office, included $12.75 million worth of grant requests to fund almost $37.3 million worth of ideas.

They're not necessarily all going to be on the final list, DeSantis said.

"The way the DRI works is, they allocate up to $300,000 to do community planning," DeSantis said.

A city committee will send in the final application, and state officials will choose the projects they want to fund and allocate the amounts.

For example, Lockport, last year's winner, sent in about $15 million worth of projects, some of which were rejected in the eventual allocations.

Niagara Falls submitted 14 suggestions. Half were entirely grant-funded infrastructure projects. The others were economic development projects in which private investment would carry most of the load.

Among them is a $6 million hotel on a city-owned vacant lot at the northwest corner of Main and Ontario streets, with the state paying half the cost.

The Amtrak station, which also includes the Underground Railroad Heritage Center, stands on the opposite side of Ontario Street, separated from the vacant lot by railroad tracks.

"It may be that the market is interested in a hotel project at that site," DeSantis said. "The market may prefer something else there."

DeSantis said the South Station Parcel, as it's called in City Hall, has been vacant since the 1970s.

"It's a difficult site to develop, because it's on a hill and it's got a railroad track," DeSantis said.

At Main Street and Cleveland Avenue, a $10.5 million, 60,000-square-foot academic building is envisioned on what is now a parking lot. State funding would cover only $900,000 of the cost of the project across Cleveland Avenue from the police and courts building.

"Niagara University is clearly a projected partner," DeSantis said, though he said that's not certain.

However, a news release from Blue Cardinal last month quoted Niagara University President Rev. James J. Maher as saying, "We are pleased to be working alongside Blue Cardinal, Mayor Paul Dyster and Anthony Vilardo of USA Niagara Development Corp. on the future of Main Street on the northern end of the city."

Blue Cardinal's estimated $2.4 million makeover of a one-time auto dealership at 1902 Main St., opposite the police and courts building, is slated for $300,000 in grant funding. The plan includes a first-floor food hall, a second-floor shared office workspace, and five apartments on the third floor.

A restaurant and small event space in the vacant building next to the Rapids Theater would cost $1.15 million, including $225,000 in state money.

Activating available street-level space in the train station for commercial lease could cost $550,000, with $250,000 of that coming from the DRI.

The public infrastructure projects that would be entirely grant-funded include $3 million to improve six intersections with decorative crosswalks and bump-outs; $1 million to turn Lincoln Place into a pedestrian connection between Main and Whirlpool streets and to convert South Avenue into a pedestrian walkway to the Highland Avenue area; $780,000 to upgrade street lights and plant 300 to 400 trees; $500,000 to close one lane on Division Avenue for bicycle and pedestrian use, while changing the name to Union Avenue; and $175,000 to place a plaza and event space in front of the police and courts building.

The application called for $200,000 in grant funding toward $360,000 in public art installations, and $20,000 in grant funding toward signage and an office for Reddy Bike Share.

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