Wonder Falls project sinks in Niagara Falls

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State officials have a new vision for the former Rainbow Centre, and it's not centered around tourism

First pitched by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014 as a project that would transform tourism in the Cataract City, the much-touted Wonder Falls water park hotel resort is now dead.

Within the same minute that the developer of the project, Uniland, announced that the resort was officially dead, Empire State Development, the state’s economic agency, revealed that it already has a new vision for some of the former Rainbow Centre: a high-density housing and commercial development.

News 4 Investigates reported in April that state officials and Uniland were still working through finances and federal tax changes that now require state and local incentives, grants and loans to be marked as income for the recipients.

As a result, sources told News 4 that the federal tax changes would have a significant negative impact on the developer’s profit on the project, considering that the state offered to assist with funds out of Gov. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic initiative.

On Friday, the company cited the tax changes as a big reason for the decision.

“The project team and I are disappointed that the years we spent developing and championing this project will not result in Wonder Falls coming to life,” said Uniland Vice President Michael Montante in a prepared statement

“We have consistently maintained that we are responsible stewards of public funds. In this case, the economics do not make sense and the prudent and proper decision was to end the process. As forces such as political policies and economic conditions shifted, so did the viability of the concept.”

Uniland said it spent “countless resources” on the proposed $150 million project that would have provided a year-round attraction in a city that desperately needs one to compliment the Niagara Falls and the more than eight million people who visit the park each year. The project included a 300-room hotel, water park, restaurants and other family-focused entertainment.

Providing the city with a new tourist attraction no longer appears to be within the state’s new vision.

Empire State Development, through its subsidiary USA Niagara Development Corporation (USAN), said it will pursue plans to transform the Rainbow Centre in downtown by releasing a request for proposals on Monday, Dec. 9. This process will invite developers to make their pitches for what the state is calling a “civic improvement project” that will “establish greater public access and walkability, create commercial opportunity and also improve parking to support new and existing business at and near the site.”

The state wants “a high-density, mixed-use development with restored pedestrian access through the center of the building and active ground-level uses.”

“Reimagining the former Rainbow Centre mall through adaptive reuse will reconnect the downtown street grid, creating a more pedestrian-friendly area that will attract shoppers and visitors and also support local businesses,” saidEmpire State Development Acting Commissioner and President & CEO-designate Eric Gertler in a prepared statement.

ESD did not address the federal tax changes and how it might impact other state economic development projects that get local or state incentives, grants and loans and did not respond to inquiries from News 4.

The former mall has about 200,000-square-feet of available space to include for redevelopment. Part of the former mall houses the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute.

Niagara Falls Mayor-Elect Robert Restaino said the former mall is a critical piece of property that provides the city with a tremendous opportunity.

“As a city-owned property, I will work with USAN to ensure that we improve the site to include high-density, mixed-use redevelopment with an active ground level that will foster future development on adjoining parcels,” he said.

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