Decades of decay, corruption, and failed get-rich-quick schemes have made the city one of the most intractable disasters in the U.S. From Business Week:
Niagara Falls has something that sets it apart from other terminally depressed Rust Belt towns, something that makes its economic failure all the more remarkable: those falls, the 176-foot-tall cascade of thunder that is no less breathtaking for being your grandparents’ honeymoon destination. For many years the city’s route to a better future seemed straightforward, and it led to the water’s edge, where you could look across the border to Canada and see a brightly lit skyline of new high-rise hotels. "It’s a booming tourist mecca over there," Hudson said. "Over here, it’s a slum."
While the Canadians were building theme restaurants and luxury suites, the American side spiraled downward. Niagara’s median household income is now just $30,000, 40 percent below the national average, and one-fifth of its 50,000 residents (down from 100,000 in the 1960s) live below the poverty line. As of November, unemployment was 7.5 percent, lower than the national average; so many have been out of work for so long that they no longer register as part of the workforce.
There’s a litany of explanations for this, but for the last decade, through a boom and a bust, several mayors, and nonstop recriminations, a single constant has loomed over the city: the Manhattan real estate billionaire Howard Milstein. In the late 1990s, the municipal government designated a private group backed by Milstein as the "master redeveloper" of 140 acres of downtown real estate. Milstein appeared, at first glance, to be just the man to help the city finally capitalize on its natural potential. He had a hotel and other development interests in Times Squareâ€”a fabulously successful example of commercial reclamationâ€”and he proposed to revive Niagara Falls along similar lines, as a casino-centered playground. It never happened. Today, Milstein is still sitting on an enormous swath of land, a ghost town of abandoned homes, shuttered storefronts, and vacant lots in the shadow of a closed-down factory where Nabisco used to make Shredded Wheat.
So what went wrong?
Niagara’s original sin, old timers say, was buying into a particular ideal of progress. A couple of generations ago, when the Canadians started building up their tourism sector, the Americans just laughed. They weren’t going to work as bellhops, not when there were plenty of safe union jobs at the state’s hydroelectric plant or in the heavy industries it powered. Then, after the manufacturers and chemical companies departed, leaving behind husked factories and brownfields, a second and perhaps more corrosive delusion set inâ€”call it the fantasy of the silver bullet.
The city fathers, in their desperation, embraced a succession of capital-intensive cure-alls. In the 1970s they pinned their hopes on the convention center, soon to become a white elephant, while in the 1980s the Ghermezian brothers, who built the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, proposed to erect a massive shopping complex called Fantasyland right in the center of town. That idea collapsed in the face of local opposition. All the while, Niagara Falls kept getting poorer.