|By Charlie Specht, The Buffalo News,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 24, 2013--NIAGARA FALLS -- Two new hotel plans for downtown Niagara Falls have tourism officials smiling.
But proposals to build a new hotel at the city's main entrance and renovate another at the edge of Niagara Falls State Park are only the most recent signs of tourism progress downtown.
Slowly but surely, the hotel stock in the downtown tourism district -- once outdated and shabby -- has been coming back to life, spurred by state incentives and continued investment around the Old Falls Street strip.
"I think people are seeing continued investment, public and private, and a continued upward trajectory of the city's tourism district, and I think people want to take part in that, to be part of something bigger and better," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development. "That's where we're headed."
The most recent step was Niagara Falls hotel owner B.F. Patel's plans to transform a former office building on John B. Daly Boulevard into a Courtyard by Marriott Hotel.
Patel, who owns a hotel on Niagara Falls Boulevard, has yet to complete a hotel project of such stature. But in his application for county tax breaks earlier this month, he said he is optimistic about the $6.6 million project.
That was welcome news to government leaders who long to change the entryway to the city off the Robert Moses Parkway, where tourists are greeted by crumbling houses and a large swath of vacant land.
"We have a continued focus on upgrading all parts of downtown, but the entryway into the city is really our front door," Schoepflin said. "So we want to convey that it's a waterfront city, that it's a city in a park, that we take care of our assets, and that it's warm and welcoming."
Another key area lies on the outer edge of the state park, where tourists are greeted by vacant or outdated souvenir shops and a Comfort Inn -- The Pointe hotel that is in need of upgrading.
Owned by the Glynn family, the hotel will receive a $4 million upgrade to prevent Choice Hotels from revoking the Comfort Inn flag.
While some say the project doesn't constitute a major investment, it could be the first sign that the Glynns -- who own the Maid of the Mist -- are ready to invest in the Old Falls Street area after a few years spent fighting to keep their boat tours afloat.
Tourism officials say that both projects are a welcome addition to the downtown tourism corridor, which for years has featured an abundance of budget hotels and a lack of higher-end offerings.
The hotel boom, by many accounts, started a decade ago with the Seneca Niagara Casino and its four-diamond, 26-story hotel dominating the skyline.
Officials say the casino helped spur a $34 million upgrade to the city's main conference hotel, the Holiday Inn Select on Third Street. The hotel, which sits directly across Third Street from the casino, was converted into a Crowne Plaza in 2006.
Five years later, the hotel was further upgraded into a Sheraton, with some much-needed street-level retail along Old Falls Street, including a Starbucks Coffee and T.G.I. Friday's restaurant.
Millions more have been spent since then to upgrade other surrounding hotels downtown, including:
--A complete renovation of the former United Office Building, once vacant and slated for demolition, into the boutique Giacomo Hotel & Residences.
State officials call the 40-room upscale hotel -- which also features rental apartments, office space and ground-level drinking and dining -- "a symbolic project that hearkened a new attitude downtown."
--Two projects by Canadian developer Faisal Merani, whose family successfully developed many of the high-rise hotels on the Canadian side of the border.
A few years ago, Merani turned the former Inn on the River near the North Grand Island bridges into a Four Points by Sheraton.
The renovation included a ground-level Italian restaurant and a deck with a view of the upper Niagara River.
Merani has also completed a $5 million renovation of the Holiday Inn on Rainbow Boulevard near Centennial Circle.
He plans to add a ground-level restaurant to the area but has not yet found a suitor.
--A small expansion of the popular Red Coach Inn, which sits on Buffalo Avenue just 1,500 feet from the American Falls.
Nearly $1 million was spent to create 12 new boutique hotel rooms in a former office building adjacent to the inn, which was featured on the NBC hit television show "The Office."
--A two-story addition, facade improvements and a street-level Italian restaurant at the Super 8 Motel on Rainbow Boulevard. The motel sits at the entrance to the city of the Robert Moses Parkway, across Rainbow Boulevard from the Courtyard proposed by Patel.
The incremental upgrades have given way to larger hotel plans -- currently in the works -- that officials see as potential game-changers for the downtown tourism product, including:
--A proposed renovation of the former Hotel Niagara by Harry Stinson, who has gained a reputation as the "condo king" of Toronto with an unconventional development style and a few successful big-time projects north of the border.
Stinson said he plans to restore the Hotel Niagara to its original grandeur while expanding the size of its hotel rooms. He is aiming to open the hotel this summer, though the building shows few outward signs of repair.
--A planned Hilton Garden Inn across First Street from the new Culinary Institute Niagara Falls. The upscale hotel would feature ground-level retail along Old Falls Street on prime land that was the site of a hot-air balloon ride.
Buffalo's Mark E. Hamister was selected as the preferred developer more than a year ago but has yet to sign a development agreement for the property. Officials say they expect the deal to be cemented later this month, and Hamister expects to break ground later this year.
--A planned upgrade of the Days Inn near the Rainbow Bridge into a Courtyard by Marriott. The highly visible hotel has not been significantly upgraded since it became a Days Inn more than three decades ago.
Development officials say the city still has a need for upscale hotels, and officials will pursue three to five new brands, some in the Hyatt and Hilton families.
They say the market calls for up to 1,000 additional rooms in the next four years.
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