Niagara Falls’ “Tourist District” just received another blow with the closing of Third Street’s 24 Below Art Gallery and Cafe’ last week.
Described by an Oct. 2016 article in the Niagara Gazette as a “haven for local artists,” the gallery actually doubled as a community center, hosting drum circles, book club meetings, business mixers and the popular annual “Dance of the Fireflies” fest. Visitors enjoyed gourmet dishes prepared fresh daily at the lunch counter, and also got to enjoy the smoothies, panini’s and desserts made in the cafe.
“We are transitioning our business into event production only without a brick & mortar store,” commented Andrea Galyn, who ran 24 Below with her wife Tina. “We are going to be part of a brand new collaboration with several other arts administrators in our region… As our three year lease is up, we decided it was time for a transition. There are a couple of different interested parties in our gallery space so stay tuned for more exciting news on Third Street!” she added on an upbeat note.
Back in 2005, USA Niagara and the city of Niagara Falls jointly spent $3.7 million on streetscape and other infrastructure “improvements” to Third Street, such as “replacement of the water mains, reduction in the size of traffic lanes to allow for widened sidewalks, the planting of trees along the promenade to drive foot traffic, the identification of gateways to the area, and the installation of special markers, new lighting and street furniture.”
“The goal of the Third Street Business District,” stated USA Niagara, the local subsidiary of state economic development agency Empire State Development, “is to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, with commercial, retail and residential development elements that will service several market segments and ultimately result in capturing more of the tourist visitation to downtown Niagara Falls.”
That was twelve years ago, and it’s abundantly clear that the Third Street experiment has turned out to be a costly and misguided failure.
The main reason why that is, is that the eight to nine million tourists who visit Niagara Falls every year almost exclusively stick to the Niagara Falls State Park, where their every need is attended to.
Food Service in the park is rendered tourists by Buffalo-based, multinational food conglomerate Delaware North, which provides everything from burgers and ice cream at food stands to formal dining and banquets at Top of the Falls restaurant. Delaware North also sells gifts and souvenirs at two locations in the former Olmsted preserve. A third shop is operated by Maid of the Mist. In combination with 1,500 parking spaces in the park, it’s obvious why the Third Street tourist district has been a bust. There’s no need for tourists to traverse several blocks and then a sprawling Niagara Street to access the woebegone promenade.
It also hasn’t helped Third Street’s fortunes that the local tourist promotion outfit, Destination Niagara USA (formerly the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, or NTCC), concentrates the bulk of its activities huckstering the seven Discovery Pass attractions, all of which (except the Aquarium), such as Cave of the Winds, the trolley and the Maid are within the park, all but guaranteeing the majority of tourists spend their time and money there instead of Third Street or anywhere else downtown.
Now that casino revenue has ceased, Destination Niagara USA will be 100% funded by bed taxes derived from hotels in the city. Imagine that. The city of Niagara Falls paying to advertise attractions in the Albany-owned and operated state park. No wonder the city is broke, and Third Street languishes.
“Head to Niagara Falls State Park and soak up the cascading Falls under the glow of brilliant autumn foliage,” Destination Niagara USA trumpeted in an email sent out just this week. “Or, see even more vibrant colors in the grand display of the Falls nightly illumination. Then, take the adventure inside with a shopping excursion at the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA,” which, of course, is located outside the city, far removed from downtown.
For a city with the highest rates of unemployment, and violent and property crime, and near highest rates of taxation and poverty in the entire state, the Third Street so-called Tourist District is a perfect refutation of the government’s “if you build it, they will come” approach to economic development here in the Falls.