February 1, 2023
The following opinion piece appeared in the December 27, 2022, issue of the Niagara Gazette, and was reprinted in Niagara Falls Reporter on January 30, 2023. Pat Whalen is the former director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute and has been involved in planning, facilities management and operations for more than 30 years.
Mayor Robert Restaino has a $150 million plan to build a park and event center on John Daly Boulevard, using land taken from a private landowner, Niagara Falls Redevelopment (NFR), through a legal process called eminent domain.
There are two big problems with this plan: First, it will most likely never be built; and, second, if a miracle happens and it is built, it will surely fail.
I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. I have spent most of my career thinking about these issues, including as Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, an organization that was established to help use tourism as an economic and social driver to improve Niagara Falls, NY. After spending six years with the NGTI, there is nothing more that I want than to see a revitalization of Niagara Falls and the surrounding areas.
In late 2021 our group released a study that involved interviewing a large cross section of tourism professionals and city stakeholders.It pointed out the obvious: low winter visitation by tourists in the six month ‘off season’. More importantly, it offered several ideas to help correct the current situation. One of those ideas was that an event center — in the right location, and at the right size — might work for Niagara Falls.
The next step was to be to figure out where such new development should go, and how big it should be.
We never got to that second step.
Before we could get to the second part of our analysis—where exactly such a facility should be located, and what size and type of event center it should be—Mayor Restaino took off without us and launched his plan, apparently based on nothing more than his gut.
No analysis, no study, not much thought.
Mayor Restaino decided to place the event center and a park on a piece of land he will fight to take from Niagara Falls Redevelopment, apparently at any cost.
Here are some of the problems:
The plan is really two projects: the creation of a park, and an event center. This makes it much tougher to pull off. It requires a larger site, more money, and different types of funding streams. Mayor Restaino says he’s not interested in tourism, but that he’s fighting for the people of Niagara Falls — the year-round residents that make our community great. Yet his park is across from a casino, and nowhere near any residential neighborhood. This makes no sense.
He wants an event center, but nowhere near the city’s hotels, bars and restaurants. With little parking. The closest hotel and parking is on the Seneca Nation’s land.
I believe the event center SHOULD benefit the Seneca Casino, otherwise they are likely to build their own someday. But the proposed site is a long walk from the casino that involves crossing a busy, four-lane road.
Not only is it in the wrong location, but the proposed event center is also the wrong type of facility. At 7,000 seats, it is simply too large. To be viable, it should be at least more than one-third smaller, or about 4,000 seats. Why? There’s an old saying in event management: nothing makes empty seats more than empty seats! The type of acts, teams and other attractions that would consider visiting Niagara Falls won’t want to play an arena that’s one-third empty. Had Mayor Restaino waited for an independent panel instead of rushing forward, he would’ve known this.
And of course, there’s the issue of finances:
The event center is unfunded — and the $150 million price tag is likely grossly underestimated (I’ve heard estimates that the project will cost twice that).
No state or federal entity is going to take a chance on a facility that is too big, has little nearby parking, and is far away from the residents it is intended to serve. and certainly no private sector funds would be available.
Even if it is built, it will struggle to attract the type of events that will bring it anywhere near break-even. The event center will never run at a profit, and parks cost money to maintain. The city cannot afford to plug the operating deficits this event center is sure to have. The Mayor’s plan will saddle Niagara Falls residents with debt and unfunded losses for generations.
Sadly, alternatives exist for an event center that I believe would work for everyone in Niagara Falls: adding critical mass, and near Third Street hospitality businesses, parking, hotels and other commercial locations.
But the Mayor doesn’t want to hear it. He’s uninterested in any plan but his own.
Mayor Restaino recently announced his reelection campaign… and his announcement gave us hints as to what this is really all about. The Mayor apparently just wants to attack Niagara Falls Redevelopment to help ensure his reelection. He has no interest in what is actually feasible or what will actually work. and why should he care? When the bill comes due for his folly, the Mayor will be long gone.
Let’s not kid ourselves: We won’t see this event center for a generation. The eminent domain process itself is expected to take years, and cost millions of dollars.
There’s an old saying in government: Once you are elected, your duty shifts from yourself to the citizens who hired you. Mayor Restaino’s bizarre proposal to build an event center — in the wrong place, at the wrong size, and on a property the city doesn’t even own — shows that he is not working for the residents of Niagara Falls.
Pat Whalen is the former director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute and has been involved in planning, facilities management and operations for more than 30 years.