Niagara Falls - The skyline on the American side of Niagara Falls sat unchanged for so long it seemed preserved in amber. But if you haven't seen the Falls in six months, brace yourself for your next visit.
A new 26-story skyscraper hotel tower looms in the center of the once-desolate business district, a $200 million investment by Seneca Niagara Casino Corp., the city's biggest employer.
And that's just the beginning. As spring melts the river ice, residents and visitors will see a rare breed poking out of the snow:
The city's fledgling entertainment district is about to get a makeover.
The once-shuttered Wintergarden has emerged as a family fun center.
The United Office Building, now the city's second-tallest structure, is coming back to life after being empty for two decades.
A new developer looks to revamp the former Occidental office building near the Rainbow Bridge.
No one is saying the city's tourism economy has been restored to health. But after four years of concentrated effort from City Hall and the state's Niagara Falls development office, USA Niagara Development Corp., its long commercial development drought is over.
"Niagara Falls is on the move," Empire State Development Corp. Chairman Charles Gargano said. "It's the beginning of a continual process of development, the end of decades of promises and no follow-through."
The hotel won't open until December but already has given the American side a landmark that stands up to several commercial ventures on the Canadian side of the falls. More than 2,000 people work for the casino, combining for about 1,600 full-time equivalent positions, and the hotel will mean 800 more jobs.
Even better than the new hotel, from City Hall's point of view, is that much of the new work will generate more property taxes for this city.
The only way Niagara Falls can get out of its financial straits is to build up its tax base, which is finally starting to happen, Mayor Vince V. Anello said.
"We've got real construction coming in downtown, and in the next 12 to 18 months, there's going to be more," Anello said. "Hopefully that'll help people in Niagara Falls realize that we're starting to turn things around, slowly but surely."
"Pace is quickening"
Scaffolding will soon sprout on the United Office Building, an Art Deco landmark unused for two decades. A $6.45 million renovation will convert it to condos and office space. Work should start in May, said Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, head of Ellicott Development.
"We've been meeting with contractors for the last few weeks, and the pace is quickening," Paladino said. "In the end, when we have a set a plans finished and we have all our contracts, it'll go pretty fast."
Within weeks, work also will start on a $3.5 million transformation of four blocks of Third Street into an entertainment district akin to the Chippewa Street District in Buffalo. Local sharing of casino dollars and state development money will foot the bill.
The project, initiated by USA Niagara Development, calls for street calming to control the speed of traffic, which will narrow the southern blocks in front of the Seneca Niagara Casino to 12 feet, with 8-foot drop-off and parking lanes. The upper two blocks also will have wider sidewalks.
Six granite pylons will be placed at entranceways to Third Street, signaling to visitors they have entered an entertainment district, said Mark Mistretta, an architect with the Amherst architectural and engineering firm Wendel Duchscherer.
Most of the work - which also includes installation of new signs, benches, lighting and trash receptacles - will be completed by July 1, Mistretta said.
A family fun center
Meanwhile, Tuscarora businessman Joseph "Smokin' Joe" Anderson has assembled substantial holdings in downtown in recent years, including two bars along Third Street. The former Wintergarden atrium has been renovated into a "family fun center," with a schedule of concert events and occasional weekend boxing matches.
Change also is under way at the former Occidental building, which greets travelers entering the United States at the Rainbow Bridge. It'll be turned into a tourist welcome center, opening in time for the summer tourist season, said operator Frank Parlato.
"The best use of this building is to help develop tourism," Parlato said. "It should be a catalyst instead of an obstacle to get around."
More plans brewing
A snack bar and information about area attractions will be the first additions, Parlato said. Eventually, the building will feature a conference center on the eighth floor, while its apex, the ninth, will become a glass-walled restaurant to take advantage of the unparalleled views, he said.
On April 6, Parlato said, he will announce plans for one of the city's most notorious symbols of failure: the hole beside the building, dug in 1999 for an underground aquarium.
"Things are going to move after that," he said.
Another construction project that will be announced soon is a $12 million, 25,000-square-foot building at 10th and Falls streets. It will be the first project for Niagara Falls Redevelopment, Manhattan real estate billionaire Howard Milstein's development firm, which has held development rights on city land since 1997.
"We're prepared to break ground as soon as the city issues a building permit," said Roger Trevino, vice president of the group. Site plan approval and architectural plans have been completed, and site testing is under way, he said. It's going to be a "hospitality entertainment facility," said Trevino, declining to elaborate.
The group also owns the former Nabisco complex and a former Native American museum near Niagara Falls State Park. Plans announced five years ago for the museum have yet to materialize. Nevertheless, Trevino said he sees growing promise in Niagara Falls.
"Things are certainly warming up," he said. "The investment climate is certainly improving."
Gail Norheim of the News Niagara Bureau contributed to this report.