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CARRIAGE HOUSE FIASCO EMBLEMATIC

By James Hufnagel

State Parks Regional director Mark Thomas has told us that knocking down the Carriage House of DeVeaux Woods would cost taxpayers just a measly $10,000.

In the face of a rising crescendo of public criticism╩against plans to demolish the historic building, he's steadfastly defending State Parks' God-given right to total, unchallenged control of the Niagara Falls waterfront.

Thomas, the former Chautauqua County Executive who was imported by Eliot Spitzer to run the local park system, is telling anyone who will liste, including the Niagara Gazette and Buffalo News, who dutifully parrot his talking points, that the storied structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is "a serious health and safety risk," that the building is irrelevant because it's "no longer in context."

Evincing a degree of arrogance that is almost beyond belief, Mark Thomas, whose basic job is to make sure the trains run on time for Maid of the Mist and Delaware North, last week issued an ultimatum.

The 150-year-old landmark Carriage House will be torn down within eight months unless the citizens of Niagara Falls scramble to produce a comprehensive business plan and discover a funding source to not only stabilize and rehabilitate the structure, but also provide for the future utilization of the building as a "viable" classroom or gift shop or nature center, something that hasn't even reached the concept stage.

As detailed last week in the Reporter, the sole source of revelation and objective truth on the issue, a 2010 State Parks document indicates that $200,000 was allocated to demolish three old buildings at DeVeaux, one of which was the Carriage House. That's an average cost of over $66,000 per building.

Thomas, who failed no fewer than three times in his quest to be the U.S. congressman from the Southern Tier before accepting the Parks position as Albany's sockpuppet, estimates the cost to demolish the Carriage House at $10,000. He's repeatedly supplied this figure not only to the local dailies, but also his bosses at the Niagara Parks Commission, who act as stand-ins for Albany, Delaware North and Maid of the Mist as Thomas' putative supervisor.

In these times of budget gaps and fiscal distress on the state level, it should be necessary for State Parks to account for the discrepancy between the 2010 budgeted cost of $200,000 to level buildings at DeVeaux and the lower figure of $10,000 per building as extrapolated from Thomas' public pronouncements.

In fact, the inflated $200,000 amount originally sought and obtained by the local office of State Parks should serve as a focus of scrutiny by state officials charged with ensuring fiscal accountability and responsible administration of public finances.

Flailing away in his efforts to bolster State Parks' case for knocking down the Carriage House, Thomas also has been extensively quoted that it would take "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to save it, money that he claims his agency simply can't afford because of other priorities.

So this week, we're going to take a closer look at the New York State Office of Parks Western Region's "priorities," referencing the same 2010 Capital Needs Assessment document that lists the $200,000 which, according to one version of Thomas' arithmetic, should be sufficient to knock down 20 historic buildings and forever prevent them from infecting the surface of our local communities.

There are 102 funding requests in the Needs Assessment, the largest being $25 million to rebuild the Goat Island pedestrian bridge, which was originally part of the now-extinct Olmsted plan for the park. State Parks ruined the bridge in the first place by using it for heavy vehicles servicing various construction projects on the island, such as bulldozing, paving parking lots and other construction projects that effectively deep-sixed the Olmsted plan.

Not surprisingly, $84 million of the approximately $137 million total requested for local state parks from Jamestown to Youngstown is dedicated to upgrades and improvements to Albany's cash cow Niagara Falls State Park, where tourists park, dine, sightsee, go on a boat ride, buy souvenirs and then exit on the Moses Parkway without having set foot or spent a dollar in the city of Niagara Falls, one of the poorest cities in the northeastern United States.

Included is $5 million to "reconfigure the park's main vehicle entrance to provide safe and efficient circulation and offloading of car, buses, and park trolleys, "$5 million to "rehabilitate the historic Cave of the Winds building complex including replacing the elevator that provides access to the Gorge," $2.5 million to "renovate the Discovery Center and upgrade exhibits and visitor attractions," $1.5 million to "rehabilitate and expand the park's antiquated irrigation system (does State Parks now plan on growing its own food?), $2 million to install fiber optic cabling in the park, and $3 million to "replace the park's ten-trolley fleet that serves a vital people-moving service."

When you throw in $2.5 million to "rehabilitate drinking water, sewage, stormwater, and electrical systems throughout the park," $2 million to "replace the park's inadequate communications system" and $5 million to "reconfigure and rehabilitate access roads", $200 thousand to "install garbage collection and recycling facilities," it sounds like New York State Parks is in the process of building the largest city west of the Hudson, which in fact it is, a city whose sole purpose is to extract millions of tourist dollars from the local economy and funnel those dollars to Albany.

Mark Thomas, the mayor of Niagara Falls State Park, was salaried at $114,972 plus benefits in 2010. That's far more than either Sen. Maziarz ($79,500) or Mayor Dyster ($79,000), but then defending one of the nation's top 10 tourist destinations from local incursions is a big job.

Other more worthy uses of our tax dollars, which take precedence over the rescue of a small historic building that serves as a portal to our history and heritage, include $8 million for Artpark, dedicated to painting, replacing brick sidewalks, enhancement of concession facilities, better stage lighting, "improved circulation and parking," renovation of bathrooms, replacement of air conditioning, and last but not least, scaling the side of the Niagara Gorge, presumably so that concert and theatergoers will not fall victim to╩sudden rockslides.

Buildings in the Western Region State Parks system that are eminently deserving of hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars to renovate are bathrooms. There are so many requests for funds to fix bathrooms that it starts to get a little creepy, as if someone at State Parks has some kind of unhealthy fixation on bathrooms.

For example, Artpark bathrooms, Beaver Island marina restrooms and comfort stations (even a new "permanent all-weather composting restroom"), Devil's Hole State Park (which is termed a "historic stone comfort station"), Fort Niagara restroom, Four Mile Creek State Park comfort station, $1.2 million at Golden Hill State Park to "construct two comfort stations in the campground area to supplement existing bathroom facilities," and a million more for Niagara Falls State Park bathrooms, of course.

Western Region has also tapped into its $3 million annual Niagara Greenway allotment to provide Niagara County with the best bathrooms money can buy, practically assuring us the title of Bathroom Capital of the World.

Bathrooms at Four Mile Creek ($540,000), Fort Niagara ($560,000) and River Road ($30,000) were improved with Niagara Greenway funds, in keeping with its stated mission to create a "Niagara River corridor (of) unique ecological, cultural and economic importance to Western New York."

Maybe State Parks would save the Carriage House if we offered to convert it into a historic bathroom.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 3, 2011