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Niagara Gazette: What’s the Real Cost of Centennial Park?

July 9, 2024

In an opinion piece in the Niagara Gazette on July 2, 2024, William Carroll describes the increases in costs for event center construction since Mayor Robert Restaino announced his unfunded Centennial Park plan in 2022, using the cancelled arena project at the University of Alabama as an example.

He also points out that the facility still has no anchor tenant. The full opinion piece is below and can be found on the Gazette website, here.

Niagara Gazette

CARROLL: What’s the real cost of Centennial Park?

In early 2022, with great fanfare, a new event center was announced, with an estimated cost in the low hundreds of millions.

But it wasn’t here in Niagara Falls it was at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

As a lifelong resident whose family has long-time family roots in Niagara Falls, I care about my community and want what’s best long-term for my children and future grandchildren. So I thought I’d do a little more digging.

Since my daughter is an alumnus of the University of Alabama, I became very interested in the comparative initiatives of the University of Alabama and Mayor Restaino’s Centennial Park project, which are very similar in costs.

For the uninitiated, the University of Alabama runs one of the best collegiate athletic programs in the country and Niagara Falls is a BBB+-rated impoverished community.

More specifically, the University of Alabama has won 18 National Championships and 28 SEC Championships in football alone as well as a number of other National Championships in men’s and women’s sports including six women’s gymnastics titles.

Arguably, this would seem to make UA a financial powerhouse capable of underwriting whatever sports facility it deemed necessary.

This is what I found in doing my own research when I compared the project being developed by UA and Mayor Restaino’s Centennial Park Project.

It was at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and the project was a $184 million, 10,000-seat arena designed as a replacement for the outdated Coleman Coliseum on campus.

But in August 2023, Alabama trustees indefinitely delayed the construction project.

Why? Skyrocketing construction costs.

Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne said, “The costs have gone up about $100 million in a year.”

As the local newspaper site Alabama.com reported:

In November 2022, UA president Stuart Bell told the Rotary Club, costs had risen 30-40%, according to the Tuscaloosa Thread. That puts the number in the $250 million range.

Now Byrne is saying it’s $30 million more.

Instead of a new arena — which appears to have been canceled entirely— Alabama just this month announced a much less expensive renovation of the Coleman Center.

Now think about Mayor Restanio’s as-of-yet unfunded plan for his “Centennial Park” event center on John B. Daly Blvd.

There is virtually no chance Centennial Park will cost $150 million to build. Like the University of Alabama’s project, Restaino’s vague estimate comes from 2022, when he announced his plan. Yet, even before the end of 2022, experts were questioning whether that was the actual cost (including in this op-ed in the Niagara Gazette).

As the University of Alabama example shows, costs have risen tremendously since then. Further proof can be found in a report from the prominent real estate firm CBRE, which confirms that general commercial construction costs rose approximately 14% in 2022, and nearly 5% in 2023.

The University of Alabama example is instructive, too, when you remember that the university already has anchor tenants for the event center: their basketball and other sports teams. Here in Niagara Falls, we have no such anchor tenant. Niagara University hasn’t committed to putting a team (or teams) there. Nor has the Seneca Nation or any other sponsor committed to the Centennial Park project.

We would be building it, hoping they will come… on the backs of our children if Restaino gets his way and floats a costly bond which he is trying to disguise to the City Council as “revenue neutral!”

We’ve got to be smarter than this, Niagara Falls.

As the mayor prepares to present a feasibility study designed to back up his questionable plan, we should be considering these issues carefully before moving forward.

We need to get out of the fishbowl in which we live and look around. We’re not the first community looking to build an event center. We’re not the first community to face an enormous inflation in construction costs that is going to influence the overall price tag of this project. And we’re not the first community that has had to deal with concerns over how to fund the event center, whether it will have an anchor tenant, whether it will operate at a profit, and what potential shortfalls in the operating budget will mean for Niagara Falls taxpayers in the coming decades.

If we don’t start asking these questions now, our children will be asking why we didn’t ask these questions … as they pay the cost for our ignorance for generations to come.