Niagara Falls, N.Y. – Drive around downtown Niagara Falls and you’ll see signs on numerous vacant lots for a private company, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, stating “leasing and development opportunities.”
But in the more than 15 years that the land has been owned by New York City billionaire developer Howard Milstein, not a single one of the vacant properties has been leased or developed.
All told, Milstein owns 140 acres of land, again all vacant, in downtown. Here’s why that’s so important: for years, city officials have admitted that one of the biggest problems facing the Falls is the lack of family-friendly attractions that would help keep tourists in the city for an extra day or two.
The fact that Milstein has neither developed the properties, or moved to sell them, is a problem we first highlighted seven years ago.
Scott Brown: I get a sense of deja vu because we talked about this seven years ago, these vacant properties and it seems like nothing much has changed.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster: Nothing much has changed with these properties, I think the good news is that whereas one time we were hoping that Niagara Falls Redevelopment was going to lead the charge here in downtown Niagara Falls, we’ve found a way to work around them and the properties that they own and to get $300 million of revitalization happening here, none of which is an NFR project.
But none of that development that the mayor refers to includes tourist attractions.
Seven years ago, we asked Senator Chuck Schumer if he would reach out to Milstein and talk with him about doing something with the vacant properties.
To his credit, Schumer set up a meeting at Milstein’s New York City headquarters between himself, Mayor Paul Dyster and Milstein.
Milstein and the mayor were supposed to speak monthly after that about ways to develop the properties.
Dyster says he and Milstein did speak regularly for a time, but that at some point, Milstein ended the contact, and instead had Dyster speak with Milstein’s development person in the Falls.
Senator Schumer however portrays the breakdown in talks differently.
Senator Schumer: I’ve spoken to both sides and Dyster has felt the Milstein’s weren’t promising anything, Milstein says ‘we need a plan of what to do with these properties and maybe we can implement them,’ and so it’s sort of Abbot and Costello, each one’s pointing at the other.
We asked Schumer if he’d now be willing to set up another meeting.
Senator Schumer: I think if we had a specific agenda, a meeting would be helpful. So the first job would be to come up with an agenda, then I’d be happy to see if we could have another meeting.
We tried to speak with Milstein about his vacant properties, but he didn’t return our phone calls.
Now it’s important to point out that Milstein is a private businessman and so there’s no way that Schumer, Dyster or anyone else can force him to do anything with the properties.
A few years ago, Business Week magazine reported that Milstein has a history of buying land and then holding on to it for years, simply waiting for the properties to increase in value. For instance Milstein owned a vacant piece of prime land in downtown Stamford, Connecticut, which became known locally as “the hole in the ground,” for 17 years before finally selling it last year at a profit of eight million dollars.
Scott Brown: We did the original story on this seven years ago, what’s to say seven years from now we’re not going to be back here doing the same thing?
Mayor Dyster: I think the market pressure. There’s some sort of project or another planned for most of the large, vacant parcels in downtown Niagara Falls, including some of the surface parking lots that are getting redeveloped, and at some point attention is going to focus on these large tracts of land that are available to Mr. Milstein. They’re going to be the last place to go to put a larger project, and I think at that point either he’s going to be motivated to undertake such a project himself or the opportunity is going to be there for him to sell his properties at the profit he’s looking for and then move on.
In the meantime, if you go to the website of Milstein’s company in the Falls, Niagara Falls Redevelopment, it says: “With large, ready-to-build parcels just steps away from the Falls, NFR is offering a rare opportunity to participate in the rebirth of one of America’s most beloved tourist destinations.”