NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) – Niagara Falls already has a big, natural attraction drawing millions of visitors every year.
At least for the American side, the challenge has been keeping those visitors around longer by offering more things to do.
The State of New York, through Governor Andrew Cuomo, has focused a lot of attention and money on building up the surroundings of the Cataract City’s natural wonder.
“The governor has enabled us to do a whole bunch more,” said Christopher Schoepflin, senior vice president of Western New York’s Empire State Development office. “In the last three or four years we’ve delivered eleven other projects totaling $100 million.”
Schoepflin says this is about delivering a comprehensive master plan envisioned by Governor Cuomo.
“All different kinds of projects, different sizes, different types, different developers at different times, and it’s all fitting together as comprehensive master plan should, Schoepflin added.
In August 2014, the state announced plans for a $150 million Wonder Falls resort where the former Rainbow Centre Mall is located downtown, not far from Niagara Falls State Park.
“How do you know it’s going to work, because it’s a natural,” Cuomo said during an announcement in Niagara Falls.
“We’re going to take that Rainbow Mall that has been a liability, and Uniland in a public-private sector partnership is going to make it a great tourism destination,” Cuomo added, back in 2014.
It was billed as the last step in transforming the remaining vacant portion of the site, 200,000 square feet, located between a culinary school and a parking helix.
According to the state’s Buffalo Billion website, the resort would feature 300 guest rooms, a 14-floor hotel tower with rooftop dining and a spa.
Once built and operational, Wonder Falls would serve as year-round attraction, featuring an indoor waterpark as the centerpiece; an opportunity to breathe new life into a building that’s been a symbol of decay and decline for years.
But it’s been three and half years since the Wonder Falls announcement and there are no signs of construction.
And that’s why some are wondering when this ambitious and expensive development project will get done.
“Something is not up to speed on this. Something is wrong here,” said State Senator Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. “To me I think you’re starting to see this where there’s big announcements and headlines, and I’m sure good intentions, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of answers.”
“If it’s not going to happen someone needs to say it’s not going to happen. Or if there’s a delay for a significant reason then just tell the public what the reason is,” Ortt added.
Empire State Development’s Christopher Schoepflin “believes” the Wonder Falls project will get done.
“It’s going to be worth the wait. You have to get it right, and it’ll be worth it because I think it’s going to be one of the most special pieces that we can add to the downtown Niagara Falls landscape,” he said.
Schoepflin says Wonder Falls is a “complicated” transaction, and that negotiations to move the project forward are in the final stages.
Between design and construction, Schoepflin thinks it could be another 24 months, two years, before the resort opens.
“You have two choices. You’re going to get it right or you’re going to get it fast. You always desire to get both of those. If I had to pick one, I’d rather get it right on something this large for both the public and the private sector,” Schoepflin said.
Uniland Development was selected as the preferred developer. A spokesperson for the company tells News 4 that design refinements, cost estimates and updated feasibility studies are still being worked on.
“Uniland is very cautious and very prudent with the types of projects that it takes on,” said Jill Pawlik, the company’s senior marketing manager.
She says it’s possible the project’s initial $150 million price tag could change.
“Although this is an ambitious project, Uniland would not proceed with it if it didn’t feel that it was a sound investment, and that we’re able to do the right project for the long-term benefit of the community,” she said.
Pawlik says stakeholders are close to announcing a “new milestone” in the project, but she could not say when shovels will actually go in the ground.
“From Uniland’s point of view the project is a go. We have been working on it practically non-stop since before it was announced because of course we had to put our proposal together.”
Pawlik says Uniland is working with the state on design refinements, cost estimates and updating feasibility studies. She says selecting an operator for the resort is still in the works, along with finding investors.
“We are doing everything we can to keep moving it along.”
While the project involves public money — Buffalo Billion funding, Schoepflin would only say the state won’t be the majority investor on the project.
“I’m not going to get into particular dollar amounts today. That will get full oversight and transparency to the public when we get there. We’re not quite there yet. But when we get there we’re happy to put as much daylight around that as possible,” Schoepflin explained.
Incidentally, the State of New York isn’t the only one with plans for an indoor water park.
Michael DiCienzo is a developer and operator of restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and attractions on both sides of the falls.
He wants to build a $20 million water park at the north end of his Sheraton at the Falls property on the American side.
“You need off season attractions,” DiCienzo tells News 4.
He says his waterpark has been designed and is just about shovel ready.
But there’s one problem.
While DiCienzo says he has received some help locally in terms of grants and tax incentives, he says the state shut the door on his request for financial assistance for the waterpark.
“They’ve refused us on numerous occasions and were very clear to us that did not want to lend support towards a waterpark,” DiCienzo said. “Conversations that I’ve been hearing from them is that they don’t want to fund a competing water park project with Wonder Falls.”
Without some financial backing from the state, around 10 percent of the project cost, DiCienzo says his project is on hold.
“It certainly will not happen without that.”
DiCienzo, who was also a bidder when the state sought a developer for the Rainbow Mall property, operates a waterpark on the Canadian side. He is convinced waterpark attractions work better in clusters.
“Actually, it’s not a competition. They work better in clusters and we’ve expressed this to the state and it’s fallen on deaf ears.”
ESD’s Christopher Schoepflin would not discuss the conversations that he’s had with DiCienzo, but did acknowledge the state has invested in some of DiCienzo’s other properties.
In terms of multiple waterparks on the American side, Schoeplfin told News 4 he doesn’t know what the market can bear.
“We’ve decided as a state to invest in one. Whether we invest in others, we never say never. We never say absolutely,” Schoepflin said. “I think we want to see how this transaction goes and see what happens next.”
He says Niagara Falls has its own well-established market.
“Might we come back to other waterparks someday? Possibly. Are we doing it at this point? Not necessarily,” he added.
The mighty falls have been, and will always be the preeminent attraction.
But getting those park visitors to extend their stay and spend more dollars in the city is still a work in progress.
Whether it’s one big Wonder Falls resort, or a combination of big and small attractions, the Cataract City is waiting.
“We can’t keep looking for grand slams. We need to start hitting singles,” said State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls.
Morinello would like to see the state focus on more smaller attractions while the big ones are still in motion.
“If you have one gigantic attraction and you don’t get a number of people in it, it looks like it’s a failure. I think we need a mix of both,” said Morinello. “I think it’s time to shift the focus on to smaller projects while this works its way through to see whether or not it actually is going to be a reality.”
State development officials say there’s been an “enormous” amount of hotel investment in Niagara Falls already — more than $200 million worth, not including Wonder Falls.
“You have to diversify your approach. We’re trying to create a great place to visit. A great place to live. A great place for the region to celebrate, and that’s all kind of things. That’s wine bars and hotels and large-scale attractions. It’s never one thing. It’s always how things fit together,” Schoepflin said.