New ‘gateway to Niagara River corridor’ will serve as ‘starting point for adventure’
Public-private partnership to be supported by $8 million grant from Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday announced the design for a new, $46 million, state-of-the-art visitor center in Niagara Falls State Park. His team said, “The facility will be a gateway to adventure along the Niagara River corridor, greatly improving the visitor experience, complementing nature, increasing the length of visits within the park in all four seasons, and enhancing awareness of nearby recreational and cultural offerings.”
The governor also announced the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation has committed $8 million in grant funding toward the construction of the welcome center. His team called it a “signature project of Gov. Cuomo's ‘NY Parks 100’ initiative announced in this year's State of the State.”
"New York is home to some of the nation's greatest parks and outdoor recreational opportunities that attract visitors from all across the globe, and Niagara Falls State Park is no exception," Cuomo said. "This new visitor center continues the stunning transformation of New York's most famous and most visited state park, welcoming the millions of tourists who visit each year while highlighting the unique history and beauty of the park and the entire Western New York community."
The new facility would provide expanded space for peak-time visiting and include areas for ticketing, interpretation, dining and retail operations. The building will replace a 35-year-old structure that is no longer capable of hosting the 9 million visitors a year the park receives.
"Niagara Falls is a wonder of the world unique to Western New York," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said. "With a rich legacy as the oldest state park in the United States, New York continues to invest in this landmark gem to bolster regional tourism, economic recovery and showcase this awe-inspiring attraction for future generations."
The proposed 28,000-square-foot visitor center will include new ticketing and information desks; interpretive museum space including an immersive experience and exhibits highlighting a diversity of topics including natural, industrial and Indigenous American history; new concession spaces; restrooms and associated support spaces. The glass, steel and concrete facility has been designed to complement nature and include a rooftop solar array, green roof elements and a separate restroom building. Enhanced site amenities include new accessible paths; plantings; outdoor exhibits, and interpretive and wayfinding elements.
An existing 7,000-square-foot regional administration building immediately adjacent to the facility will be adapted to include a multipurpose community room, regional archives and offices for Niagara regional interpretive staff.
The $8 million grant from the not-for-profit Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, created after the 2014 death of Wilson, the former owner of the Buffalo Bills and a co-founder of the American Football League, “continues Ralph Wilson's remarkable legacy of support for tourism, parks and outdoor recreation, trail development, and community revitalization in Western New York.”
“NY Parks,” Cuomo’s team said, “renews the historic commitment to investing and expanding the state park system by committing at least $440 million over the next four years. This critical period of revitalization will culminate in the 2024 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the State Park Act, which first created our nation-leading state park system in 1924 under Gov. Al Smith. ‘NY Parks 100’ will continue crucial investments in park infrastructure while enhancing opportunities to reach the full range of New York state's recreational and cultural offerings, including local parks and trails, regional flagship parks and historic sites, and vast wilderness parks. The initiative will focus on creating places to recreate locally, relieving overcrowded parks, welcoming new visitors, and protecting New York state's environmental and historic legacy. This new plan will ensure people from all communities and across all ages and abilities can fully experience our outdoors, our culture, and our heritage.”
The building is being designed by GWWO, a national leader in visitor center development. Construction is expected to begin in the fall of 2021 and wrap up in time for the 2023 tourism season.
State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said, "Niagara Falls is New York's very own ‘Wonder of the World,’ and it should reflect that grandeur to people from all walks, internationally, nationally and locally. This project will not only serve to welcome, orient and educate visitors to the park, it will serve as a jumping-off point to many other regional attractions – which will mean longer visitor stays and more opportunities for all of our tourism partners."
Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation President and CEO David O. Egner said, "A new and reimagined Niagara Falls State Park welcome center along the Shoreline Trail has tremendous potential to strengthen the area's growing tourism economy, creating more jobs and enhancing the quality of life for area residents. The $8 million grant for this project also builds upon the foundation's broader efforts to catalyze economic development in Western New York and improve access and connections to public spaces and trails throughout the region. We look forward to the future welcome center being a world-class destination the residents of New York and the region can be proud of when it welcomes an estimated 9 million visitors annually from across the world."
Congressman Brian Higgins said, "This reimagined visitor center for Niagara Falls State Park is an essential part of the larger effort to open up the beauty of Niagara Falls to the rest of the world. It builds upon the recent removal of the former Robert Moses Parkway reconnecting the residents of Niagara Falls to what is arguably the greatest waterfront on the planet, and complements other significant recent parks improvements funded through the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project."
State Sen. Rob Ortt said, "The Niagara Falls State Park is a one-of-a-kind asset to Niagara County, the Buffalo Niagara region and the state of New York. The announcement of a new state-of-the-art visitor center will greatly enhance this already-treasured attraction, improve the experience for the millions of annual visitors and bring additional interest to the park and surrounding community. I am grateful to the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation for partnering with the state of New York to provide substantial new investment to the park and the City of Niagara Falls."
Assemblyman Angelo Morinello said, "Thank you to Gov. Cuomo for his continued focus and financial contribution in the City of Niagara Falls and the world-class attraction that the Niagara Falls State Park is. This new visitor center will add to the overall visitor experience, allowing them to learn more about the region and spend more time in Niagara Falls. This investment serves to compliment the already over $150 million that has been invested here as we continue to rebuild this global attraction."
City of Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino said, "As the oldest state park in the United States, and most famous park in New York state, I am thrilled at the opportunity with this innovative improvement. Knowing that our city plays host to over 9 million visitors each year and is the tourism catalyst for Western New York, we are excited for the opportunity to better accommodate the needs of tourists during their stay with us. By presenting visitors with a state-of-the-art welcome center with the help of New York state and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, we anticipate continued investment in our community and further allowing us to bolster economic growth within Niagara Falls."
Destination Niagara USA President and CEO John Percy said, "The investments that have been made to improve the Niagara Falls State Park over the last several years have been nothing short of extraordinary. A new, state-of-the-art facility is a much-needed and highly anticipated addition to the park that will provide visitors year-round access to a visitor center that will offer a superior experience."
State Parks will issue a request for proposals from potential partners for a 10-year-plus agreement beginning in 2022 to operate food, beverage, retail and recreational concessions throughout Niagara Falls State Park, including space in the new visitor center. The new agreement would offer 7,300-square-feet of "white box" space to be built out by the next operator for concessions and support areas.
Once issued, information on the RFP will be posted here.
This project will complement the $150 million revitalization of Niagara Falls State Park landscape. Launched in 2011, the Niagara Falls State Park landscape revitalization plan was a multiyear commitment to renew the park in a manner that better reflects noted park designer Frederick Law Olmsted's vision for the landscape. The plan renovated the park's major viewing areas, including Luna Island, Prospect Point, Lower Grove, Three Sisters Islands, North Shoreline Trail, Luna Bridge and Terrapin Point with new pedestrian walkways, enhanced landscaping, new benches, light posts and railings. The interactive Cave of the Winds pavilion, which highlights the natural and cultural history of Niagara Falls, opened in 2017.
Cuomo’s team concluded, “Removal of the Niagara Scenic Parkway in the City of Niagara Falls provides unprecedented access to the Niagara Gorge by connecting the city to its waterfront for the first time in a generation and is the largest expansion of Niagara Falls State Park since the creation of the park. Niagara Falls State Park is a state and national treasure. Created in 1885, it is the oldest state park in the nation, attracting over 9 million visitors annually.”