April 24, 2012
From the publisher Frank Parlato Jr.
Earlier this month, an interesting story appeared in the Niagara Gazette, written by Mark Scheer, entitled "'Dream' pitched for downtown Niagara Falls."
The story is about 17-year-old Dominic Daoust, an intrepid Niagara Falls High School senior and "his mentor," Art Garabedian, owner of Art's Woodshop & School of Woodworking on Portage Road.
The two have "a big idea that they think could help revitalize downtown Niagara Falls," the story reports.
The idea is to develop something similar to Disney's Epcot Center in Niagara Falls.
Mr. Garabedian appeared before the Niagara Falls City Council on Feb. 6 to introduce his idea.
Of course, there have been others in the past that have had similar ideas of international centers and other plans of theme parks. These were mainly of the dollar-and-a-dream variety; several were seeking government funding, hoping that if dreams must ultimately vanish, how nice it would be if it were at the taxpayers' expense.
Of course, when Walt Disney first came up with the Epcot idea, it was just a dream too. But the Walt Disney Company had money. And so it got done.
Disney started building in 1979 and opened Epcot in 1982. According to published reports, it was at the time the largest construction project in the world with 22 construction companies, 500 subcontractors and 10,000 construction workers utilized to build it. It cost $1.4 billion in 1980 dollars.
Since that February Council meeting, young Mr. Daoust, who certainly should be lauded for having the heart and maturity to care about things at an age when most of his peers are still self-absorbed with the eye-opening challenge of being between a man and a child, and Mr. Garabedian, also to be lauded for taking an interest in inspiring and teaching the youth of this city, have together and separately visited officials and business owners to present their idea. Mr. Daoust even held a rally at Hyde Park to garner support.
They have a long way to go, and perhaps it would be instructive to look at some other big ideas that might have helped revitalize the area, but failed to materialize.
The Magical Lands of Oz theme park has been in the talking stages since at least 2003. The idea is grand, a magical kingdom like the Emerald City found in the Wizard of Oz books, proposed for an 800-acre Town of Wheatfield site, with 5,000 jobs created, as the men with the dream said.
Although plans were drawn, possibly costing more than $1 million, the other $799 million needed to build Oz has yet to be found. After 10 years, it appears all they have are yellowing plans and a website. The latest news clipping posted on their website is dated 2005.
Back in 1999, two foreigners had a dream to build a world-class underground aquarium. They raised enough money to do a feasibility study and get architect and engineering designs. They borrowed enough to dig the hole, thinking that might attract investors to fund the aquarium. It did not.
On the fence surrounding the hole, just before it was filled in 2005, were 6-year-old faded signs: "AquaFalls coming soon."
When I was managing member of One Niagara, I regularly had people come to see me who had dreams, but no money.
One guy had "Christmas World." Another a Niagara Falls version of Rockefeller Center. One had an idea to have a thousand oriental mummies in battle attire.
Do you have plans?
"No but I have some pictures of where they did this in China."
Another was "Insect World," where large mechanical insects allow a person to "immerse in the insect's undersized world."
One sophisticated man wanted to develop a "Gates of Heaven" theme park where people could "experience the afterlife."
The park would have angels, St. Peter, saints and the good and famous of history, along with rides, attractions and "ambrosia and nectar" refreshment stands.
There would be a ride where you "die" and through special effects ascend through an ethereal body to be judged. You can choose hell, heaven or reincarnation, each with its own attractions. One ride earns you angel wings, and lifted in the air, you experience flight in a manner similar to how angels purportedly fly.
The dreamer also planned a dark and scary "Fiery Hell," with rides, amusements and a handsome cast of devils.
"Think of all the Bibles we would sell after they leave Hell," the man said.
Another two guys with a dream and insufficient money are Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and the eminent local historian Paul Gromosiak.
About a dozen years ago, they came up with the idea of a Niagara Experience Center. The dream has gone nowhere, perhaps because it must be hard to find real investors to risk real money to create a virtual Niagara Falls right next to the real one.
Mayor Dyster and his group (now without Mr. Gromosiak) have only so far produced picture books with computer-generated images of the rides. Last year, the mayor tried to snooker the taxpayers with a $5 million request to the governor so they could do some "serious" plans and studies. The governor turned them down.
Another idea was "Maharishi Veda Land," a dream of a 1,400-acre theme park replicating India in the times of its Sanskrit culture with a dose of 20th-century mysticism. Doug Henning, the magician, and the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had the dream, but apparently not the money.
Today, Mr. Daoust and Mr. Garabedian are pitching their idea. Mr. Daoust even pitched it to a local land owner, claiming he needs 100 acres of his land for his project. Now the following is meant as advisory and not to discourage anyone, but unless Mr. Garabedian and Mr. Daoust know something that others, including myself, do not, there are a few things they will probably need before they will be taken seriously.
First, get full design plans drawn by real architects and planners. That will show the scope of the project and how much land is needed. Although cheaper plans may be obtainable, the usual cost for a project that would be a world attraction is between $1 million and $2 million.
Absent a site plan, how would anyone know this idea requires 100 acres? Epcot's parking lot alone is 162 acres.
Next, get a feasibility study, done by professional business projection analysts. Cost: between $100,000 to $200,000. Who will invest without knowing what the chances are of earning the money back? This is not calculated by wishful thinking, but by bona fide accounting and business projection standards.
One might need a site selection study. Cost: $50,000 to more than $100,000.
There are several locations in the area that might be suitable for such a development once the site plan is made.
The Forest City site next to the Summit Park Mall or the Summit Park Mall site itself might be suitable. So might the proposed Oz site in Wheatfield. So might 800 acres the Magna Entertainment Corp. owns in Porter. Although well funded, the megamillion international company apparently could not raise the money needed for their horse racing-based attraction, in spite of acquiring the land.
Obviously, no landowner will take any billion-dollar development idea seriously until the developer comes up with plans, studies, or at least a financial statement or letter of credit showing he has the ability to invest or raise money.
Even if one raises the $1 million-plus for plans for a world-class theme park, chances are more than likely the project will not be built. A billion dollars is not easy to raise. Epcot was built in a warm climate that encourages visitation year round. Niagara Falls has a three-month tourist season -- one of the main reasons so many of these theme park plans have failed to attract investors.
Mr. Daoust wrote letters to businesses and wealthy individuals, including Disney, Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, Universal Studios and Steve Wynn, seeking investment.
Every one of these gets similar letters every week.
Mr. Daoust told the Gazette he received responses from Disney and Wynn. Both of them said they are not interested.
If one of them took an interest, however, they would probably not need Mr. Garabedian or Mr. Daoust, in spite of their heart and brains. They would design it themselves and keep control of the project. There would be no room for two guys with no development track record, no money, no site plans, no land -- just a dream of building another Epcot in the north.
"We need to do something in order to turn this city around," Mr. Daoust told the Gazette. "How many times have we heard that we need to keep the tourists here for just one more day? Well, this does it."
Sure, it does. If you have the money.
It may be unfair, but it is true. Until someone has some money, a little "skin," as they call it, in the game, the dream means nothing.
Money talks and dreams walk.
Ideas are valued, by those who have the real money to pay for them, at about a dime per thousand.