DOS and ESD Announce Niagara University to Establish an Academic Innovation Hub in Niagara Falls

June 24, 2022

Downtown Revitalization Initiative Project in Bridge District Will Serve as Anchor for the Community  

See Conceptual Renderings and Picture of Interior of Church Here 

The New York State Department of State (DOS) and Empire State Development (ESD) today announced that Niagara University has begun work to establish an academic innovation hub and community space in the Bridge District in Niagara Falls. Niagara University will invest more than $2.5 million, including a $1.1 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award, to purchase the First Congregational United Church of Christ, a historic church at 822 Cleveland Ave, and transform it into a center for community outreach to help residents with early childhood development, economic development, community collaborations, and focus on health and wellness of residents. 

“After much planning, the projects selected through the DRI process in Niagara Falls’ Bridge District are finally becoming a reality,” said Empire State Development President, CEO & Commissioner Hope Knight.  “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.” 

“This project underscores the indispensable role that universities serve as anchors for urban revitalization, economic development and the overall quality of life within a community,” said New York State Secretary of State Robert Rodriguez.  “The establishment of this innovation hub in the Bridge District DRI enhances the vibrancy and vitality of this rising Niagara Falls neighborhood and the region.” 

“Niagara University remains deeply committed to the growth and revitalization of Niagara Falls,” said Niagara University President Rev. James J. Maher. “The academic innovation hub is one more step forward as we work with Governor 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.” 

Niagara Falls’ Bridge District, a business district along North Main Street near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge to Canada (and former bridges such as the Railway Suspension Bridge) was awarded $10 million under Round 4 of the DRI in August 2019. The Niagara University project was identified as one of 10 transformational projects under the DRI spending plan and will receive a $1.1 million DRI grant administered by Empire State Development.  The project is expected to be complete in spring 2023.  

Niagara University will continue to lease the main floor of the church to the existing congregation, which has been active since 1855, for weekly services. The church has a rich history, including the belief that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad and was a host to 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The building’s location gives Niagara University a high-profile community presence to support direct neighborhood outreach, academic and civic programming, and historical and cultural events.   

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. 

Niagara Falls’ Bridge District was named a DRI round 4 winner in August 2019.  With support from the Department of State, Niagara Falls developed a strategic investment plan that envisions the Bridge District as an active, walkable neighborhood that supports growing businesses and provides a welcoming environment for both residents and visitors that celebrates the area’s unique qualities and amenities. The strategic investment plan is guiding revitalization projects to advance the community’s vision for the district and to leverage and expand upon the state’s $10 million investment.   

City of Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino said, “I am grateful for Niagara University’s proven dedication to our community. The new Academic Innovation Hub will serve not only as a learning opportunity for students, but also 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.” 

State Senator Robert Ortt said, “With this investment by New York State, the residents of our Niagara Falls community will now have greater access to important services that are necessary for not only everyday life but also the further development of our city. This new Academic Innovations Hub with help build upon the positive progress we are witnessing throughout our city and is a brilliant display of what can be done when educational institutions, local government, and state government collaborate. I applaud this joint effort and look forward to the results created because of it.” 

Assemblymember Angelo Morinello said, “I’m confident that Niagara University’s Academic Innovation Hub will become a prominent local anchor that expands the university’s presence in the city, serves the families and children of the Bridge District and fosters community and economic development. Thanks to Governor Hochul and Niagara University we are realizing our vision for this district to fully reach its incredible potential.”  

The Niagara Falls Bridge District centers on a Main Street corridor, featuring prominent civic and cultural spaces, regional transportation amenities, and close to outdoor attractions, including De Veaux Woods and Whirlpool state parks and the Niagara Gorge. In recent years, the construction of the Amtrack Station, the Underground Railroad Heritage Center, and the creation of the Gorgeview section of Niagara Falls State Park, through the state’s removal of the Robert Moses Parkway along the reclaimed Niagara Gorge rim, have laid the groundwork for enhanced connectivity.  The DRI identifies key investments in public spaces, signature design projects, and strategic support of private projects to continue to bridge the divide, sown by urban renewal, between Main Street and the Niagara Gorge by fostering connections between community assets, a sense of place, and residential options for a diverse population. Niagara Falls is eager to ensure that investment will deliver on the principles of good urbanism to create a welcoming gateway district for visitors, a sought-after area for commercial activity and employment, and a desirable, livable neighborhood. 

Downtown Revitalization Initiative 
New York State’s DRI, a cornerstone of its economic development program, transforms downtown neighborhoods into vibrant centers that offer a high quality of life and are magnets for redevelopment, business, job creation, and economic and housing diversity. Led by the Department of State with assistance from Empire State Development, Homes and Community Renewal and NYSERDA, the DRI represents an unprecedented and innovative "plan-then-act" strategy that couples strategic planning with immediate implementation and results in compact, walkable downtowns that are a key ingredient to helping New York State rebuild its economy from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to achieving the State’s bold climate goals by promoting the use of public transit and reducing dependence on private vehicles.  More information on the DRI is available here

About the First Congregational Church 
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. 

Niagara University 
Founded by the Vincentian community in 1856, Niagara University is a comprehensive institution, blending the best of a liberal arts and professional education, grounded in our values-based Catholic tradition. Its colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, Education, Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management, and Nursing offer programs at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral level. 

As the first Vincentian university established in the United States, Niagara prepares students for personal and professional success while emphasizing service to the community in honor of St. Vincent de Paul. Niagara’s institutional commitment to service-learning has led to its inclusion on the President’s Honor Roll for Community Service every year since its inception in 2006, and its recognition with the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement. 


Laura Magee (ESD) | [email protected] | (716) 846-8239
Department of State (DOS) |  [email protected] | 518-486-9846