By Timothy Chipp
Town of Wheatfield Planning Board officials knew they needed to get the word out on possible changes coming to the former Summit Park Mall as soon as they could.
To accomplish their goal, they hosted a public information meeting Wednesday – with no formal decision or game plan finalized for how to progress – allowing ownership of Niagara International Sports & Entertainment to give a presentation, and those affected most a chance to air any grievances or make suggestions.
Its aim, according to Planning Board Chair Susan Agnello Eberwein, was to nip misinformation in the bud regarding the proposed project, and to give ownership a chance to present its initial plans.
“This is what is called a sketch plan,” Wheatfield Town Engineer Tim Zuber said following the meeting. “It’s when someone comes in looking to propose something. Some come in with drawings on a napkin, really. Some are more formal.”
NISE, led by owner Zoran Cocov and operator Neal Turvey, was more prepared than scribbled notes. They hope to have the expansion – two inflatable domes along Plaza Drive each measuring 260 feet wide by 500 feet long and about 85 feet high – completed by the time the weather inevitably shifts in October.
For them, the project – Cocov said estimates are $6 million in costs between building foundations, amenities like washrooms, and the actual soft structure itself – represents a way to expand offerings not just to the youth who use the facility for year-round sports training, but also the community.
They’ll have fully customizable space, where they can provide walking areas for those who previously used the Summit Park Mall for cardio. They’ll have volleyball, basketball and pickleball courts available. Baseball – already a staple of NISE with indoor batting cages – will be expanded while sports like soccer, field hockey and lacrosse will get space.
Many of the roughly 75 in attendance showed up to offer support for the project. Those living on nearby streets who voiced positivity said they were tired of looking at the former mall building that is showing its age and lack of use.
Others focused on the opportunities the facility offers, especially in rough winter months fresh in the public’s mind after a particularly rough season the area is starting to emerge from.
A current view of the site formerly known as the Summit Park Mall.
An athletic facility is open and active at the site of the former Sears.
“As a coach and as a father … this facility will give our children a step up in order to excel,” Jordan Kinney said in addressing the Planning Board. The next closest facility like this is out in Elma, and that’s showing its age.
“In the last 30 years, Niagara Falls and the surrounding areas have become dilapidated. Ten years from now, 15 years from now, 50 years from now, our kids are going to be the ones left. They’re going to be here and we’re not. Let’s make sure they have something to be proud of.”
Sentiment toward the project wasn’t exclusively positive, though. Samuel Cireto, who lives on Plaza Drive directly across from where the two domes would be built, had multiple exchanges with developers and the public regarding his home.
He questioned the placement of the domes so close to the street, whether they needed to be at the backside of the mall, and even if they needed to be there at all. He suggested alternative spaces for such facilities like near Niagara Wheatfield High School.
Cireto claimed his view of the night sky from his house would be obstructed by the two tall structures, and even engaged with another member of the public sarcastically regarding selling his property to get out before his view changed.
Ultimately, the project will need not just Planning Board approval, but also Zoning Board of Appeals go-ahead regarding the height, before it goes before the Wheatfield Town Board. Leadership did not give any indication on when any of this may take place.
However, materials related to this application, including any drawings as part of the presentation Wednesday, are available for public inspection at the Wheatfield Building Department office located in the lower level of Town Hall, 2800 Church Road.