'Landmark' Niagara Falls Airport terminal dedicated

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Sep. 3--The building isn't quite finished, not all of the funding is in place and the difficult task of finding more air carriers to use it still lies ahead.

But on Wednesday those involved in the dedication ceremony at Niagara Falls International Airport focused on the significant accomplishment of the day: The actual construction of a state-of-the-art, $31.5 million passenger terminal that people in Niagara County have been talking about building for many, many years.

"This is a landmark of which we can all be proud and, indeed, we are ready to take off," said Henry Sloma, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and a driving force behind the terminal's development project.

At 69,430-square-feet, the new terminal is roughly triple the size of the old structure. Construction was handled by Walter S. Johnson Building Co. of the Falls. It was designed by Stantec Consulting with a curved roof intended to evoke the image of flowing water and the Niagara rapids. The structure offers several significant upgrades over its predecessor, including modern inspection facilities, in-line baggage screening and free Wi-Fi access. The main draw remains a feature that has been at the airport for years -- runways long enough to accommodate larger 747 and 757 aircraft which are unable to land at nearby Buffalo Niagara International Airport, also operated by the NFTA. Long-time supporters of the terminal's development believe the new features and the existing runways will make the Falls an attractive destination for international tourists, especially those from Europe and Asia.

"We at the authority see this facility as an economic engine," Sloma said.

Stepping to the podium

Sloma and other members of the NFTA were credited with sticking with the terminal construction project which experienced several years of ups and downs, including a failed effort to privatize the facility under a partnership with the Spanish firm, Cintra.

State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, who started working on the airport project when he held a community forum on the subject back in 1996, said with the disappointments of the past now history he's confident passengers and cargo companies will discover the facility, spurring economic development in the surrounding area and throughout the community.

"This space and this airport is ripe for development," he said.

The terminal construction project is part of a larger $42.5 million improvement effort at the Falls airport that includes $11 million in new apron and landscape improvements. The overall project is being funded, in part, with funds from the city's casino slots revenue share. And while local elected officials squabbled for months over the best use of those funds, all agreed Wednesday that setting aside a portion for terminal development may well turn out to be the most productive use of all.

"Right here, right now is proof that progress and development is happening right here in Niagara Falls and Niagara County," said state Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Newfane.

Mayor Paul Dyster thanked the citizens of Niagara Falls for allowing a portion of the city's casino dollars to be used for the project. He also thanked several "unsung heroes" who helped the cause, including prominent Niagara Falls hotelier John Prozeralik, who for many years found himself at odds with NFTA officials over their handling of air travel accommodations in the Falls.

"He was the guy who never lost faith in this effort," Dyster said.

Let people know it's here

One low-cost carrier showed faith in the existing Falls airport two years ago, generating the bulk of the passenger traffic inside the old terminal. Direct Air, which offers low-cost flights from the Falls to Myrtle Beach, S.C., is pleased with the response to its local service so far, according to company President Ed Warneck. He said Myrtle Beach flights have been especially popular among customers north of the border as more than 50 percent of Direct Air's Falls customers come from Canada.

"I think this is going to be monumental to the future of Niagara Falls," Warneck said.

While enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the new terminal, Warneck said proper marketing will be the key to any future success. In that regard, Warneck said, the community has to be prepared to undertake the significant challenge ahead.

"It's not going to encourage people to come to this destination," he said of the new terminal. "What encourages people to come to the destination is marketing."

Elected officials attending Wednesday's ceremony generally agreed with Warneck's assessment, acknowledging that much more work needs to be done in terms of convincing additional carriers to consider the Falls for their operations.

"This is the end of one very long journey, but it's the beginning of a whole new journey and that journey begins today," Maziarz said.

In talks with potential air carrier

Maziarz and NFTA officials met this week with a representative from Kenny Tours to discuss a potential business partnership. The Maryland-based carrier has been looking at the Falls facility as a potential location for flights to and from Ireland. The company had planned to move forward with that project last year, but were forced to put them on hold when it could not secure the aircraft needed to support the service.

Bob Nay, sales and marketing manager for Kenny Tours who attended Wednesday's ceremony as part of a visit to Niagara County this week, said there's an "80 percent" chance a new deal will be worked out soon.

"There's a very good possibility for 2010 that we will begin a series of flights to and from Ireland," Nay said.

Terminal financing questions and work to be done

Financing for the terminal remains an issue for the NFTA. Executive Director Lawrence Meckler said the project still has a budget gap of between $13 million and $14 million. He said the agency hopes in time, and as the economy improves, the state of New York will be able to help make up the difference.

"Over a period of time, we're looking for them to help us," he said.

Meckler said there are still several "punch list" items that must be completed before the new terminal officially opens to passengers. He said all of the work is expected to be completed by October.

"I would expect that within the next 60 days we would be transitioning from the old (terminal) to the new," Meckler said.

Maziarz suggested a possible use for the old terminal which he believes would make an ideal location for aviation artifacts held by the Ira G. Ross Aerospace Museum. The attraction, which gives visitors a better understanding of the history of aviation in Western New York, relocated to Buffalo last year after several years of operation in downtown Niagara Falls.

Contact reporter Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.

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