By Matthew Ricchiazzi:
Niagara Falls’ tourism should be generating an additional $20 to $30 billion in annual GDP for the region. Year after year, we’ve allowed that enormous economic potential to lay idle. What should be some of the most expensive real estate in the world, is instead a vast underutilized industrial expanse along an iconic waterfront.
Our collective inferiority complex – a psychosis of defeatism stemming from our 53 year decline and industrial collapse – keeps us in chains, like a post-traumatic stress. Downtrodden, the magnitude of what we are destined to achieve seems unimaginable today; but in retrospect, it will have seemed inevitable.
Transforming Niagara Falls will be easier today than ever before. There has been enormous capital accumulation globally, and the capital markets have never been more globally integrated. Corporate balance sheets are flush with cash, and are looking for new growth drivers. Toronto is already one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and as the financial center of Canada, is enjoying enormous new oil wealth – providing both an enormous pool of investment capital and a robust source of tourists.
Raising large sums of capital to invest in a globally recognizable brand – Niagara Falls – is eminently achievable. We should set an aspirational objective: more visitors than Las Vegas, spending more money per capita, within 20 years. Getting Niagara Falls’ tourism industry to $30 billion in GDP would require 30 million annual visitors spending an average of $1,000.
Our goal should be nothing short of building the preeminent tourist destination on the North American continent – simultaneously an affordable family destination for the masses, a Mecca of art and culture, and a vibrant playground for the global elite.
This is how I propose achieving it:
- Niagara Matching Capital Investment Fund ($10b fund; investments of $20m to $500m)
We need to mobilize capital in a boldly catalytic and rapid way. This investment vehicle would link the global capital markets and national entertainment brands with local operating companies, while delivering lucrative equity returns for State and its investment partners. The state should capitalize the fund in the range of $10 billion over 5 years:
Investment groups making capital commitments in excess of $20 million on an entertainment, hospitality, or tourism related venture inside Niagara Falls would have access to equity capital on a matching 1:1 basis.
This investment program would allow for the rapid mobilization of capital on large scale projects including resorts, amusement parks, entertainment venues, and tourism related enterprises. The Fund should deploy $10b, matched by private investment partners and national brands, over 5 years, across 125 investments averaging an $80m capital commitment.
- New York Power Authority
With state legislation we can require that NYPA removes the Robert Moses Parkway (which it owns), and replaces it with a pedestrian promenade, a compelling public parkscape, and a series of commercially developed entertainment piers along the upper Niagara River.
We should further monetize our hydro capacity with a new aqueduct and generating station just north of the old Schoellkophf power plant. By amending international agreements to allow the diversion of an additional 50,000 cubic feet per second in high water months and 25,000 cubic feet per second in autumn and winter months, we can generate new revenue streams that finance our redevelopment and endow our cultural institutions.
- USA Niagara Development
As it is currently structured and defined, USA Niagara Development Corp, an arm of Empire State Development, is ineffective. It is too narrowly focused on a small segment of Niagara Falls; it has been poorly tasked by policymakers; and the pace of its efforts have been too slow.
I propose tasking the entity with a more focused and more ambitious goal: to manage a massive streetscape and canalscape construction project from the State Park to the North Grand Island Bridge.
It’s a huge task, and it should be financed aggressively by the State. The more quickly we can build out compelling neighborhood streetscapes and a modern utility substructure along the riverfront, the more quickly we can accommodate large scale investment.
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
The Governor should appoint an Environmental Czar and task him or her with the environmental remediation of a vast swath of the City of Niagara Falls, designating it a “Post Industrial Transformation Zone.” That Environmental Czar should be empowered to utilize eminent domain at will and to expend state resources as necessary to bring the entirety of the transformation zone to shovel ready status within 5 years.
- New York State Thruway Authority
The New York State Thruway Authority should take the lead in building a grand new entranceway into Niagara Falls, replacing the Robert Moses Parkway. Rerouting traffic patterns along Buffalo Avenue will transform vast expanses of underutilized industrial land into prime real estate.
Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein would likely support a project connecting the LaSalle Expressway to Buffalo Avenue, routing traffic off of the water and through his 140-acre property – which has sit idle for far too long. We should act before this window of opportunity closes.
Matthew Ricchiazzi holds an MBA in Finance and Private Equity, and a BS in Urban Planning, both from Cornell University. He founded Change Buffalo PAC to promote issues of new urbanism in Western New York. He can be reached at changebuffalo.org.