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The rise of Niagara Falls


Courtesy Niagara Tourism Convention Corp.

As you enter Niagara Falls, N.Y., past a procession of abandoned chemical plants, you confront the ghosts of the city’s once-flush industrial past. It looks like another Rust Belt city.

In some respects it is. Niagara Falls’ population of 50,000 is half what it was in its heyday in the 1960s. Its budget is tight, unemployment is high, and many buildings stand empty.

But three blocks from downtown is Niagara Falls, a spectacular natural wonder that attracts 8 million people a year. There is nothing like the curving maw of the Horseshoe Falls, the subtle power of the Bridal Veil or the 280 tons of force with which the American Falls crashes down on the jumble of talus boulders at its base.

In Niagara Falls, the symbols are many: power, living on the edge, overcoming hard times, the force of nature. What a place to hold a meeting.

A city on the comeback
The greenbelt that edges the falls was the nation’s first state park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose most famous legacy is Manhattan’s Central Park.

Niagara Falls State Park is undergoing a well-deserved facelift; new walkways, landscaping and bridges provide close-up, in-your-face access to the swirling rapids and brink of the falls.

The city, too, after many failed attempts at urban renewal, is reinventing itself.

The downtown skyline is dominated by the Seneca Niagara Casino and Resort Hotel. Its neon lights cascade down the outside of the 26-story hotel day and night, mimicking the falls and the rainbows that form in their mist.

Eleven years ago, New York state signed a gaming compact with the Seneca Nation of Indians giving it exclusive rights to operate three casinos in western New York in return for a portion of gaming revenues.

Niagara Falls was selected as one of the casino sites. The city’s too-large and struggling convention center, designed by architect Philip Johnson in 1973, was chosen to be its home, and the casino opened there in 2002.

From convention center to casino to conference center

A smaller conference center opened in 2004 midway between the casino and the state park. Its clean, utilitarian design awash in natural light won awards from the American Society of Interior Designers for adaptive reuse of four existing buildings. The conference center became an impetus for city revitalization.

Managed by Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Comcast-Spectacor, the the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls has a 10,500-square-foot ballroom that can be divided in two and a 32,000-square-foot, three-bay event center used for everything from Roller Derbies to trade shows with as many as 100 booths.

Its 19,500-square-foot learning center has 15 conference rooms and an amphitheater whose 50 seats each have a computer plug-in. All of the rooms are equipped with 18-hour ergonomic chairs and the latest technology.

Beth Demakos, who holds meetings all over the country for Unified Data Systems, is a regular client of the Niagara Falls center. “This is my site of choice,” she said. “The conference center is state of the art, and that’s important for a technology company.”

International Association of Conference Centers-certified, the conference center has common break areas, tackable walls and whiteboards, and broadband Internet access.

Last year, 13 citywide conventions and 117 conferences and meetings with an average attendance of 775 people were held there.

Bruce Kolesnick, associate director of meetings and special events for the University of Buffalo, was the first person to hold a meeting — when the conference center opened, almost 10 years ago — in the new conference center in a city that he says is “on its way back.”

“The location and building itself is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s laid out perfectly for our academic conferences of 200 people. The staff is exceptional and caters to our every need.”

The conference center has its own food service and an outdoor dining terrace on Old Falls Street.

In 2010, Old Falls Street, once a city thoroughfare, was paved with cobblestones. It runs from the casino and past the conference center to Niagara Falls State Park and can be closed to vehicles during events. It has become the scene of festivals and concerts, food trucks, bike rentals and outdoor board games, as well as special events for meeting groups.

“This year, the conference center arranged a country hoedown for our group on Old Falls Street. It was great,” said Demakos.

The $30 million Niagara Falls Culinary Institute has opened across from the conference center. It has a restaurant, a deli and a patisserie, all staffed by Niagara County Community College students.

“The conference center is a destination meeting place with the casino on one side and the falls on the other,” Kolesnick said. “There’s a large outlet mall nearby, and that culinary school has great desserts.”