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Years of broken promises

It's been almost 13 years since Niagara Falls Redevelopment first approached Niagara Falls officials with grand plans to revitalize downtown. As reported today in the News Niagara edition, NFR head and New York City real estate billionaire Howard  Milstein met for the first time in his Manhattan headquarters with Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

During the meeting, Dyster and Milstein promised a monthly discussion on the swath of NFR holdings in the Falls. The meeting, Schumer said, also touched on several projects Milstein is considering for Niagara Falls, but the senator said he could not reveal any details of those potential plans.

He described them as "a number of smaller projects that can occur in the medium term" that are significant "million-dollar type projects."

   "There were some ideas traded and nothing was agreed to, or course," Schumer said. "Nothing concrete, except in the sense that everyone agreed that these types of projects would fit for Niagara Falls and fit the needs of both NFR and the city and its residents."

Schumer said Milstein also discussed "a couple of really grandiose ideas" NFR would be willing to invest in, but that would take significant public state or federal bonding. Schumer said he agreed to explore if bonding would be possible.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last year issued a report that found NFR's 2003 master developer agreement with the City of Niagara Falls offered "little protection" to the city or "consequences" if the developer failed to live up its promises.

Dyster said on Friday that it was clear from the discussion that Milstein does not believe the agreement is dead.

"It was clearly his view that the agreement was still in operation and that he viewed himself as a major landholder," Dyster said, "but also a major development partner for the city in downtown Niagara Falls."

The mayor said part of his focus for the meeting was to talk about the possibilities for the future of Niagara Falls.

"It's in both the city's interest, its residents, and in Milstein's, that there be more prosperity there," Schumer said. "The $64,000 question is, how can both sides come to something mutually agreeable that benefits them both. That's what we're trying to get done here.

"The fact that Milstein has not just got up and sold his property and walked away, but does continue to maintain them, shows that he is still interested."

Since NFR has approached the city with its plans, very little has happened. Here's a timeline:

April 1997: Niagara Falls Redevelopment, headed by Toronto developer Edwin Cogan, unveils $130 million development proposal that includes four- and five-star hotels and other attractions. "There's no reason we can't do here what Disney World did for Orlando," a company lawyer says.

 June 1997: NFR says it will buy the 20-story United Office Building for $2.2 million and renovate it. This never happens.

   January 1998: NFR presents a redevelopment plan that includes a downtown casino, live music theaters, movie theaters, six new hotels, shops, nightclubs and other attractions. City approves plan in April, giving NFR exclusive rights to develop 142 downtown acres. Plan approved that April; Council members say the project will not cost the city any money.

   August 1998: Cogan sells half of NFR to Howard Milstein, a New York City real estate billionaire.

   January 1999: NFR announces plan for a $25 million underground aquarium featuring 5,000 ocean and lake creatures. This is never built.

   June 1999: Court filings in Toronto indicate that Cogan owes $17 million to creditors, and an insurance company tries to force him into bankruptcy. Cogan says his Toronto money problem will have no effect on NFR's plans. The company offers to donate $120,000 to various community projects if city allows further delays on its purchase of the United Office Building.

   July 1999: NFR says it is "prepared to move forward" with a proposed boxing museum and hall of fame. This is never built.

   January 2000: NFR Chief Executive Officer Anthony Bergamo says NFR is exploring development of a museum showcasing works of 1960s pop artist Peter Max. The attraction is never built.

   May 2000: NFR discusses a possible Chinatown-type attraction on NFR's development parcel. The attraction is never built. An attorney for NFR, Paul A. Grenga Jr., says he and a partner will open a Dinosaur Park in the Wintergarden building. Grenga says NFR is cooperating with the development but is not involved. The dinosaur park never opens.

   June 2000: NFR hosts a dinner to solicit interest and seed money for a children's science center. The attraction is never built. The company buys the closed Turtle Indian culture building on Rainbow Boulevard, announcing plans to restore it. The Turtle is NFR's first purchase of a building in the Falls, and a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony is held on June 29, just before a city-imposed deadline for NFR to start building something. The Turtle has never reopened.

   March 2002: NFR gives up its option to buy United Office Building.

   May 2002: NFR sues the city over its refusal to sell the Niagara Splash Park to NFR for $3 million. NFR says it could make $7 million a year operating the splash park or could sell the land for at least $35 million.

   December 2002: Cogan sells his interest in NFR to Milstein. Cogan says city officials share the blame for the lack of development on NFR's parcel.

   April 2003: NFR buys the old Nabisco plant and warehouse on Buffalo Avenue for $3.2 million, calling it a key to the future of downtown.

   June 2003: City approves a new contract with NFR, now calling for the company to spend $110 million on development by the end of 2007. "The goal is to get NFR committed and investing," says city attorney Ronald Anton. "If they can't go forward, they're cut off, and there is certainty."

   July 2003: In a Viewpoints article, Cogan writes: "I made two mistakes. I brought in the wrong partner in Milstein, and I allowed his management team to run the project into the ground." Cogan dies in Toronto three months later.

   August 2003: NFR says it will build a $12 million complex of stores, restaurants and entertainment attractions. The complex is never built.

   September 2004: City agrees to sell a 10th Street playground to NFR for $180,000. Some city residents are upset by the sale.

   April 2005: NFR breaks ground for a $12 million "hospitality and entertainment" project on Falls Street. The project is never completed.

   May 2005: NFR says it has recently spent $4.5 million to buy 200 pieces of property within its development area. NFR now owns more than half of the 142 acres that it was given the right to redevelop.

   August 2005: On the site of the old 10th Street playground, NFR builds its first foundation in Niagara Falls. NFR also submits a $100 million plan for a 400-room hotel, a parking ramp and shops on the Splash Park property.

   July 2006: New York State seizes 17-acre Splash Park property and gives the land to the Seneca Nation for casino-related expansion. Land is taken off tax rolls. The Senecas later pay a company controlled by NFR $18 million for the property, and NFR goes to court seeking an additional $75 million.

   January 2007: NFR proposes a new deal with city, which would cancel NFR's obligation to spend $110 million on development by the end of 2007.

   May 2007: Mayor Vince Anello, unable to reach an agreement with NFR, declares the 2003 agreement with the company invalid, a claim an NFR lawyer disputes.

   January 2008: A new administration now will deal with NFR, which has demolished houses on its tract but has yet to announce any development plans or add to the foundation it laid in 2005.

   Jan. 8, 2010: Milstein meets in his Manhattan headquarters with U.S. Sen Charles E. Schumer and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who tell the media afterward that Milstein would like a new beginning when it comes to his Falls properties. Several new project proposals are discussed in general terms.

   -- Staff writer Dan Herbeck

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