North End church to be outreach 'hub'

Jun. 25—LOCKPORT — Niagara University plans to invest $2.5 million, including $1.1 million in state funding, to convert the basement of one of the oldest churches in Niagara Falls into an education and community outreach "hub" for the city's North End.

Under a plan announced Friday, the university will buy First Congregational Church located at 822 Cleveland Ave., just off north Main Street.

NU plans to renovate the building's lower floor to make way for a computer lab, classrooms and new office space for the Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement, an arm of the university that focuses on community outreach efforts in the Falls.

"Niagara University remains deeply committed to the growth and revitalization of Niagara Falls," said NU President the Rev. James J. Maher. "The Academic Innovation Hub is one more step forward."

First Congregational Church traces its roots to 1853 when a group of community members gathered to discuss religious worship for the first time at an old brick schoolhouse on Ontario Avenue. Those original church members laid the cornerstone of the Cleveland Avenue church building on a plot of donated land in 1855. The building was formally dedicated two years later.

Under the arrangement with NU, church members will be allowed to continue to use the building's sanctuary for Sunday worship services, music events and other activities.

Stacey Menard, moderator of First Congregational's church council, said it has been difficult in recent years for the church's nine-member congregation to maintain the building.

"It's 168 years old," she said of the building. "Things are coming down faster than we can keep up with them."

Menard said she's hoping the partnership with NU, especially members of the university's LBGTQ+ community, will help grow the church's membership and attendance during Sunday worship services. First Congregational is an open and affirming church that welcomes all members regardless of their gender expression.

"We are excited to partner with Niagara University and with God's love and guidance we can continue to serve the people of Niagara Falls," Menard said.

NU's plan for a North End innovation hub was one of 10 projects earmarked for state funding last March under New York state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The state committed a total of $10 million to support renovation efforts along what is now known as the Bridge District along Main Street. NU's church conversion project will be supported with $1.1 million in DRI funding to be administered by the Empire State Development Corp.

NU officials said the hub will provide residents with access to early childhood development, health and wellness resources. The university plans to assign a full-time to the center who will work with students to assist in community outreach efforts. In addition to renovating the church building's basement, NU will purchase new furniture, computers and other equipment. There are plans for infrastructure improvements inside the building, including the installation of a handicapped-accessible elevator.

The university has also been awarded a two-year, $450,000 grant from The John R. Oishei Foundation for programming and intern scholarships. NU officials said the program will focus on academic innovation, raising community engagement and creating new workforce development initiatives.

"The new Academic Innovation Hub will serve not only as a learning opportunity for students, but also as a resource center for Niagara Falls residents," Mayor Robert Restaino said. "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."

Dan McMann, NU's director of facility's services, said the university hopes to have permits in place and designs completed by this fall. He said interior renovation work could begin before the end of the year.