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A bad experience for Dyster

Niagara Falls Repoerter

January 03, 2012

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, along with the board of the Niagara Experience Center Inc., a so-called not-for-profit corporation, have been trying for years to get taxpayer money to help design a "virtual" Niagara Falls museum, to be built a few hundred feet from the real Niagara Falls.

Last month, the board tried but was unable to persuade Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Economic Development Council, headed by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, to give them $5 million for plans, designs and studies.

Although he did not get them any money, Duffy offered a tepid pacification to disappointed backers of the project, saying, "I would encourage anyone (to) keep re-applying and pushing. (But) there's only so much money to go around."

The Niagara Experience Center project, as a concept, has been in various phases of talk, planning and trying to get money since the 1990s, when former high school science teacher Paul Gromosiak suggested an idea for a sort of Disneyesque, interactive museum that would provide a virtual experience of the falls itself.

The present Niagara Experience Center board, which no longer includes Gromosiak, includes Eddie Friel, a professor of tourism at Niagara University, who replaced Dyster as chairman sometime after Dyster became mayor. In addition, the board includes Dyster's chief planner, Tom DeSantis; Robert Shibley, a UB professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, the same department where DeSantis teaches part time; Steve Brown, an accountant who is the brother-in-law of City Controller Maria Brown; Bonnie Foit-Albert, an architect who has donated generously to the mayor's campaigns and has been more generously rewarded with city work; Christopher Schoepflin, chief of USA Niagara, one of Dyster's closest allies in taxpayer-funded projects; and a few others who have ties to Dyster.

Dyster is, and has been, the undisputed leader of this project for years.

In 2002, state officials, led by then-governor George Pataki, actually endorsed the project and spoke of getting the group $10 million of taxpayer money. Ultimately he delivered nothing.

In 2004, the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp. came up with taxpayer money to hire Economics Research Associates to develop cost estimates and do feasibility studies, and BRC Imagination Arts to draw conceptual plans.

It was hoped that a private developer, who could see drawings and studies rather than just talk about a virtual Niagara Falls museum to be located somewhere or other, might be induced to invest in the project.

BRC created computer-generated pictures for exhibits that included "The Gorge," a central garden space with multi-story projection towers that would "immerse visitors in the epic scale and story of Niagara Falls," and "the Brink," a "dramatic connection corridor featuring a cave-like environment that would create the illusion that visitors are walking behind and right over the falls."

As an aside, the "Brink," with its "cave-like environment that would create the illusion that visitors are walking behind" the falls reminds me a little of something you can do if you visit the real Niagara Falls. It's called the "Cave of the Winds."

The feasibility study suggested the Niagara Experience Center, if built with a combination of taxpayer money and private investment, should be able to pay for itself through admission fees and not be a permanent drain on taxpayers.

The study -- as studies usually do -- said what the people paying for the study wanted it to: It suggested the Niagara Experience Center will have a positive fiscal impact on the community and create several hundred jobs.

The cost to build it was estimated to be about $100 million.

The 2004 studies also indicated the best location for the Experience Center would be one that is as close as possible to the Niagara Falls State Park, perhaps a few hundred yards from the actual waterfalls.

Meanwhile, since the studies and pictures were completed eight years ago, nothing much has happened other than talk and indeed, at times, it seems likely that the Niagara Experience Center will never be built.

I personally can think of at least one good reason why it should not be built.

I know it sounds quaint, but the real Niagara Falls is right outside the door of the proposed building! That's the real Niagara Falls Experience.

Indeed, a Niagara Experience Center could be built anywhere. Maybe Las Vegas will one day build it (with private money) and can advertise it as, "You don't need to travel to Niagara Falls. Experience it right here only a few steps from the craps tables."

Dyster and DeSantis have repeatedly said that the experience can be had -- virtually -- without even walking to the falls or getting wet or having the wind mess your hair.

Dyster said to the press, "How far does a grandmother with a stroller want to walk?" Perhaps only Dyster and DeSantis would plan to build a train station in a city with no train traffic, an Underground Railroad museum where no such history exists, and an Experience Center to replicate the "real" experience that lies just outside the doors of the building.

Without the $5 million in state money, it appears the project will remain where it has been for years -- in people's imagination, with yellowing plans and a website that is rarely updated.

Still, the recent request for money may not have been about development anyway.

Dyster and DeSantis hoped to get the state's $5 million to, as they said in their application, perform additional design and site selection work and update the cost-benefit analysis, which is now several years old.

The new studies will only repeat what the old studies said.

But with $5 million, there could be plenty of new work for designers, engineers and planners.

One cannot help, looking at the composition of the board, but suspect that Foit-Albert would do much of the design work, Shibley could do some of the consulting, Brown could do the accounting, and Schoepflin could put on the USA Niagara website an accomplishment for his organization -- which has had few real accomplishments.

With $5 million, the board could pay to create inflated projections as they "analyze" local and comparable attractions in other cities, develop unsubstantiated projections for attendance, and ultimately conclude that the Experience Center, if built, with a heavy infusion of tax money, should be able to pay for itself through admission fees and not be a permanent drain on taxpayers.

The new study will suggest what the people who pay for the study want it to suggest: that the Experience Center will have a positive fiscal impact on the community, while creating several hundred (thousand? -- it does not matter, it is just a projection) jobs.

At the end of the day, if, as the studies suggest, the Niagara Experience Center can indeed sustain itself without public funding (i.e., make a profit), then, one would think, it should be able to be built without public funding.

That's just old-fashioned Americanism. If some kind of business works, if something is actually needed, if the demand is there, someone will build it without government taxing the people to get it done. Successful developers, who risk their own capital, are generally smart enough to build what works based on the law of supply and demand.

Conversely, if there is no one willing to build the Experience Center without public funding, then it stands to reason that it probably cannot sustain itself, that the studies are wrong, and this won't make a profit or break even.

In the end, if it is built with taxpayer money, it will probably continue to cost taxpayers money through the years.

After almost 15 years of talk, the free market apparently does not want it.

Nobody among the world-class developers of tourist attractions -- Ripley Entertainment, Disney, Hagen Choi, even our own local Dino A. DiCienzo -- none of these seem to see the value.

A virtual Niagara Falls is just not needed when the real one is right here.

Dyster and company may know this.

The dirty little secret behind why Dyster and company did not get the $5 million for the Niagara Experience Center, the real reason, the only reason that Cuomo's group turned it down, is that it was not about a real project, not real bricks and mortar -- it was about studies.

One might say their request for $5 million was to create a virtual project instead of a real one.

Cuomo naturally wants the money to be used to get something done. He doesn't mean pretty pictures and imaginary nonsense.

DeSantis said he remains "very bullish and positive" about the concept, but admitted it may be time for the board of directors to reconsider the way it has attempted to sell the merits of the project to potential private and public sector investors, especially those outside of Western New York.

Yeah, that's for sure.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.