Friday April 18, 2014 Full Website »

Can Niagara Falls Grow Again?

Can Niagara Falls Grow Again?
Flickr/ Diego3336

At the end of the 1953 film noir Niagara, the film's villain, George Loomis, steals a boat after murdering his wife, Rose (played by Marilyn Monroe). Trapped in the back of the boat, Polly Cutler (on her honeymoon with her husband, Ray) has no choice but to accompany George on his escape. The boat runs out of gas, turning it around and straight for Niagara Falls. Just before George and the boat tumble to the bottom of the Falls, he throws Polly onto a rock for rescue, with a helicopter picking her up soon after.

When the local police inspector, Starkey, at last comes to Polly's aid, he quips, "I know you've seen enough of the Falls for one trip, but don't cross us off your list."

Polly's honeymoon-gone-wrong happened on the other side of the border, but Starkey's quote rings even truer for those on the American side- one visit there and, most likely, it gets crossed off the list.

In a state of decline since the 1960s, Niagara Falls, New York, has seen its population drop in half, from a peak of 102,394 down to 50,193 today. During that same time, its neighbor, Niagara Falls, Ontario, has built itself up into the tourist draw that the American side once was. The Canadian city has seen its population increase from 22,351 to 82,997 during the same 50-year period, transforming itself into the equivalent of a prosperous Atlantic City. 

City leaders are eager to turn the fortunes of New York's Niagara Falls around, but time is not exactly on their side. Once Niagara Falls' population drops under 50,000 it will no longer qualify as a city, at least as far as the department of Housing and Urban Development is concerned. That distinction would lead to Niagara Falls losing its HUD status as an entitlement community. It could also affect the level of assistance the city receives from New York State.

The city's most recent effort to thwart its population loss is an initiative to entice college students and recent graduates to move into targeted sections of downtown by offering to pay off a portion of their student loans.

"We want downtown Niagara Falls to be healthy and retain tourists," says Niagara Falls community development director Seth Piccirillo. "We have neighborhoods that are walkable with historic homes and green space, areas that have the aesthetic and environment that young professionals want."

Using $200,000 from the city's Urban Renewal Agency account, the city would pay off student loan debts for two years, covering up to $3,500 per year. In exchange, college graduates within last four years or those currently in graduate school would be expected to rent a market-rate apartment or buy a home downtown.

The city is primarily targeting Niagara University and Niagara County Community College students but they're also confident they can get people who work in the more prosperous Buffalo area. "I'm familiar with the commute having done it myself. It's a very manageable, 20-minute drive," says Piccirillo.

Downtown Niagara Falls, New York. Image courtesy Flickr user singingwitness

But beyond this outside-the-box housing strategy, a series of initiatives have been underway for the last 10 years in Niagara Falls, all with the aim of making the city a more attractive place to live. So far, the results have been mixed.

                                                                        •       •       •       •       •

Thirty years after first opening a convention center too big for its own good, Niagara Falls replaced it with the city's first casino in 2002, operated by the Seneca Gaming Corporation (SGC) as part of a gaming compact between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians. Four years later, SGC added a 358-foot tall hotel, giving the city a lone, shiny tower to compete with the building boom across the border.

While the casino offers a fair variety of entertainment options, it tends to exist as an island, with vacant lots and surface parking never far from it. Ten years since its initial opening, the casino has failed to generate spin-off development either by the Senecas or by developers along its surrounding parcels. 

What a short walk east of the Seneca Niagara Casino, along Falls Street, looks like. Via Google Maps.

To make matters worse, the Senecas are in a dispute with the State of New York, leading the tribe to withhold the state's share of gaming revenues as agreed under the compact. Until that's settled, Niagara Falls cannot receive its share of casino money which, since the dispute began, now totals around $60 million. For an already limited municipal budget, the suit has created an even greater set of challenges for funding basic infrastructure projects around the city. 

The redesigned Old Falls Street that terminates at the casino to the east and Niagara Falls State Park to the west. It features a cobblestone road, LEED-certified sidewalks, a new conference center and a renovated hotel. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Casino revenues aside, improvements are still underway. A redesign of Old Falls Street was recently completed. Serving as the immediate path between the casino to the east and the State Park and Falls to the west, the street has become the city's iconic thoroughfare.

As part of the redesign, the city demolished a local icon, Cesar Pelli's 1977 Wintergarden, to further restore the street grid. Since the the project's completion, Old Falls Street has hosted events like a summer concert series and a holiday market, helping establish it as a hub for street activity. Design-wise, the cobblestone road is accompanied by an innovative storm water management system, native plants, water recycling inside mist fountains, refurbished street lamps, bicycle parking, and recycling bins. Old Falls's redevelopment has turned it into arguably the most environmentally-friendly street design in the region. 

A former outlet mall along Old Falls known as the Rainbow Center (built in 1982) is soon to join the list of corrected urban renewal mistakes. In the process of a $30.6 million conversion into a culinary institute, the redevelopment will include a student-run restaurant, a bakery and deli, a culinary themed Barnes and Noble, a store that sells local wines, and academic facilities that focus on tourism-related business. It's scheduled to open this fall.

      •       •       •       •       •

Seven miles east of downtown lies one of the bolder investments in the city's infrastructure.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) took on an $42.5 million renovation of the hardly used Niagara Falls International Airport (IAG) in 2009. Turning a deficient facility into a serviceable one has led to a substantial annual increase in passenger boardings since the new terminal's debut.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the airport saw a 965 percent increase in passengers since the renovation, with 85 percent of its users coming from Canada. And according to the NFTA's Director of Public Affairs, Doug Hartmayer, the airport has a $158.6 million indirect economic impact on the region, supporting 1,706 jobs. 

Its growth hasn't been without complications, though. Direct Air ceased operations earlier this year, taking its Niagara Falls-Myrtle Beach service with it. Vision Airlines is no longer flying its IAG to Destin/Fort Walton Beach, FL or IAG to Miami routes. A rumored agreement with Ryannair to provide service to Dublin was put on hold before it even started, leaving the NFTA still searching for its first international flight. "[International flights are] very much a priority. We'd like to go west too," says Hartmayer. "We continue to meet with different airlines and explore different opportunities."

Furthering hopes for growth, an annual survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries ranked the Buffalo/Niagara region as a top 20 tourist destination for the first time in the survey's history. Tourism to the Falls (Canadian and American) is increasing among visitors from BRIC nations, particularly India and China. Flights out of Canada are not likely to lower in price any time soon, making IAG poised for continued growth.

                                                                               •       •       •       •       •

Construction and urban policies aside, the city is currently most excited about the national attention it's due to receive this Friday. Nik Wallenda will attempt to walk across the Falls, potentially drawing over 10,000 spectators while also being aired on live television. Some see it as a chance for the city to get back its lost reputation as a place for the daredevil, while others just hope that it brings Niagara Falls some positive attention. Walking over the Falls on a tightrope will be no easy feat, but fixing the city behind it might just be the greater challenge. 

Top image: Niagara Falls, New York as viewed from the Niagara Parkway in Ontario. Courtesy Flickr user Diego3336

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion