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JULY 15 - JULY 23, 2014

Niagara Experience Center Casualty of Putt-Putt Mentality

By James Hufnagel

July 15, 2014

The Niagara Experience Center, or the Emerald City?

"Governor Cuomo Launches Development Competition to Revitalize Downtown Niagara Falls" announced an Albany press release of October 3, 2013. 

Cuomo's diversion of a $40 million slice of the "Buffalo Billion" pie to jumpstart development in the city, one of the poorest in the northeastern US despite having eight million tourists visit the State Park next door every summer, was effusively praised by local politicians. And why shouldn't they appreciate it? It was the bone tossed to them for being "on board" with everything the governor has done over the past three years on the waterfront and in Niagara Falls State Park to deprive the city of its already meager share of the local tourism trade. 

Tourists on carnival ride over faux Falls. Note the dolphin at lower left.

The media advisory read, "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that the State and the City of Niagara Falls will partner to launch the Downtown Niagara Falls Development Challenge, a major competition to select a team of world-class designers, developers and operators to envision and develop signature projects in the downtown area... that will spur private development and at the end of the day, entice visitors to the area so that they will stay longer and spend more in the community." 

Whenever millions in government economic aid are ladled out, you can bet there will be some "operators" around. 

While the once weary and discouraged residents of Niagara Falls are now jumping out of their skins in excitement, anticipating which of the first wave of putt-putt, splash park and bumper car proposals will be approved for an allocation of Cuomo's millions, its noteworthy that one "signature project", talked about for years here, apparently won't be in the mix. 

"Experiencing" nature by stepping through a hologram

The Niagara Experience Center, first envisioned nearly 25 years ago and perennially on the development wish list, once touted as a key component of the resurgence of downtown, strangely, does not appear to be under consideration. 

Originally conceived by local historian Paul Gromosiak back in 1990, the concept stirred the public imagination to the extent that over 200 citizens attended an early informational meeting at the Main Street library. Plans called for a center that served not only to educate tourists about our various heritages (natural history, Native American, French and British colonial and American history) but also steer them to other attractions in the region, including the Stone Chimney, a Tesla museum, the Underground Railroad and Fort Niagara. 

Gromosiak resigned from the board of directors of the Niagara Discovery Center approximately eight years ago over disagreements with the board and others as to the direction the project was taking. Originally a grass roots-level initiative with broad-based support, things soured when the government got heavily involved. 

"USA Niagara took control, and started bringing in Buffalo figures like Robert Shibley and others. All they wanted to talk about was Buffalo projects, like the UB Medical Center and development of the Buffalo waterfront. They had little to no interest in Niagara Falls or what we had worked on to that point," lamented Gromosiak. "Later on, I wanted to invite historians to Niagara Falls and form a conclave to come up with ideas and an outline for how we were going to showcase all the amazing history of Niagara County in the center. Chris Schoepflin told me, 'We're not ready' and that was the end of that." 

According to Gromosiak, USA Niagara also attempted to transform the Experience Center mission from highlighting the natural, cultural and industrial heritage of Niagara Falls to providing Disney-style entertainment. 

"They (USA Niagara) brought in an outfit called BRC that actually did work for Disney, and we had meetings with them everyday for an entire week. They're the ones who wanted to do a hologram of the rapids that you could walk through and other silly stuff." 

"Nature's Glory" looks more like an image from a Watchtower pamphlet

The Niagara Experience Center web site, which doesn't appear to have been updated in years, highlights the following rooms: "The Brink" ("a dramatic connection corridor that features a cave-like environment with mist, wind and projection, creating the illusion that visitors are walking behind and right over this world-famous natural wonder"), "The Gorge" ("the central garden space that provides orientation, decompression and interpretation for visitors"), "Wild Niagara" ("Deep-dive into the natural forces and grandeur of Niagara Falls") and "Nature's Glory" ("a delightful, interactive exhibit garden, where fascinating live species and fun facts abound"). 

So many pie in the sky projects, from the Niagara Experience Center, to Aquafalls and Oz and the Epcot Center knock-off proposed last year by a seventeen-year-old and given serious attention by the politicians and local paper, that fizzled and went the way of the do-do. Meanwhile, Niagara Falls State Park, next door, rakes in the vacation dollars of millions of tourists every year.





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