The Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University, announced that the university is in the process of purchasing the First Congregational Church, at 822 Cleveland Ave., in the bridge district of Niagara Falls.
“Niagara University remains deeply committed to the growth and revitalization of Niagara Falls,” Maher said. “The academic innovation hub is one more step forward as we work with Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Restaino, and our key partners to align with existing initiatives to bring economic, workforce, and social development to the bridge district. We are beginning to see progress in our community, and I look forward to working with the entire community to create opportunities for growth and investment in our region.”
NU said, “The university’s academic sector will play a critical role at the innovation hub. A faculty member will be appointed to serve as faculty-in-residence and work with students to engage with the community to determine its needs as they align with the university’s mission and the five pillars of the social determinates of health, including economic stability, education, social and community context, health and health care, and neighborhood and built environment.”
With an initial investment of $2.5 million, NU and its community partners will create a center for community outreach to help residents with early childhood development, economic development, community collaborations, and to focus on health and wellness of residents.
The project was identified as one of 10 transformational projects under the Downtown Revitalization Initiative spending plan, and will receive a $1.1 million DRI grant administered by Empire State Development.
“After much planning, the projects selected through the DRI process in Niagara Falls’ bridge district are finally becoming a reality,” said Hope Knight, ESD commissioner and president and CEO. “Renovating this historic building will broaden its community reach and impact as an active space for community, educational and business uses. Providing new professional resources and neighborhood amenities will also add to the area’s quality of life, both for existing residents and for newcomers drawn by projects like these that are transforming the state’s city centers.”
The university’s investment in the church will transform parts of the building into a state-of-the-art working space to meet the needs of the innovation hub. In addition to renovations, the university will purchase new furniture, computers and technology-related equipment, and it will make a number of infrastructure upgrades, including the installation of an elevator to provide handicap access. The building’s worship space will remain intact and will be used for various activities, including the continued use by the existing congregation, a speaker series and music events.
“I am grateful for Niagara University’s proven dedication to our community,” City of Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino said. “The new academic innovation hub will serve not only as a learning opportunity for students, but also as a resource center for Niagara Falls residents. They will have immediate access to resources to help strengthen their professional lives, as well as their personal lives. The resources that will be available will open up new doors for residents to drastically improve their quality of life.”
The First Congregational Church sits next to New York state’s $40 million investment that eliminated the Robert Moses Parkway and reconfigured Whirlpool Street from the gorge to Niagara Falls State Park. New walking trails highlight the natural landscape, all of which make the north end of Niagara Falls more accessible and inviting.
“We are excited to partner with additional investors, developers, business owners and community organizations to ensure that economic growth takes root in Niagara Falls,” Maher said. “With our partners, we will work to make the First Congregational Church one of many anchors of Niagara Falls’ north end, all serving to deliver vitality, growth, and needed support for the organizations and businesses already operating there.”
Niagara University has been awarded a two-year, $450,000 grant from The John R. Oishei Foundation for programming and intern scholarships. The project has three key objectives: academic innovation; the establishment of a critical dialogues and community engagement series; and the creation of workforce development activities. The grant will assist in identifying the technology, programming, and related supportive resources necessary to build a competitive and competent workforce and entice innovation and entrepreneurship.
The First Congregational Church was completed in 1856, the same year Niagara University was founded. Construction was spearheaded and completed via the donations of area residents who contributed limestone, bedrock and other materials that were used to build the Railway Suspension Bridge. Area lore has it that the first parishioners were abolitionists and that the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, hence the museum of that same name on nearby Depot Avenue West.