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MAY 12 - MAY 19, 2015

Improving Waterfront and Tourism - the Right Way, the Wrong Way and the Greenway

By James Hufnagel

May 12, 2015

A $72,260 sidewalk to nowhere in Wilson, funded by Greenway, recedes to the vanishing point, symbolic of the infinite waste of Greenway cash on local politicians' pet projects that have little, if anything, to do with ecological restoration, economic development or enhancing tourism.

Upon reading the following question, close your eyes, or look away from the page for a few moments, and see if you can think of an answer. Can you name a waterfront project funded by the Niagara River Greenway? Open your eyes now. Were you able to think of a single Greenway project?

The Niagara River Greenway, part of the 2007 relicensing agreement with the New York Power Authority (NYPA) granting a new federal permit to operate the Robert Moses hydroelectric Power Plant at Lewiston, NY, is supposed "to plan and implement a linear series of parks, trails and conservation areas along the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Fort Niagara." $9 million of the total $450 million, 50-year program is doled out annually as follows: $3 million to State Parks, $1 million to an "Ecological Fund", $2 million to Erie County and Buffalo, and $3 million to communities and school systems from Buffalo to Youngstown.

At the Greenway plan's inception, some questioned the fact that the proposed $450 million income stream did not factor in inflation or interest rates. Money has time value. Over the span of fifty years, the value of $450 million metered out in $9 million annual payments is greatly exposed to both inflation and interest rate risks. $9 million in hand at that time did not equal $9 million promised 50 years from then. Some brought this fact up through both SEQRA and FERC, but since NYPA was not mandated to respond to such concerns, and the plan was a done deal by that time anyway, it went completely unaddressed.

In response to the quiz question we started with, if you came up with the $25 million in Greenway funding that State Parks is using to cut down trees, expand parking lots, level and fence off Three Sisters Islands, install thousands of slippery pavers at Prospect Point and, in general, turn Niagara Falls State Park into a Disney-style amusement park where eight million tourists a year park, eat, sightsee, purchase gifts and souvenirs and then leave the area without any reason to enter or spend money in the city of Niagara Falls, one of the poorest in the entire northeastern US, congratulations, you've wrapped your mind around half of the problem with the Niagara River Greenway.

Instead of enhancing economic development - one of its stated goals of the Greenway - the Niagara Falls State Park Landscape Improvements Plan will actually make us poorer.

Another waterfront project that may have popped into your mind, especially if you read the April 21 issue of the Reporter, is the $225,000 worth of park benches, street lights, picnic tables, garbage cans and decorative boulders to be installed at the 53rd Street fishing dock at LaSalle. This overpriced boondoggle is a perfect example of the other half of the problem with the Niagara Greenway: local politicians like Mayor Dyster using it as an ATM to fund questionable projects that have little to do with its statutory mission.

But don't feel bad if, a few moments ago, you couldn't think of a single Greenway-funded project. Most people can't. Go ahead, ask the person you're with right now. See what we mean?

Unfortunately, though, neither can the eight million tourists from all over the world who visit Niagara Falls State Park every year and then, for the most part, leave on the Moses Parkway three or four hours later. They wouldn't know the Niagara Greenway if you put a blindfold on them and led them into the middle of it. And that's a shame, because it means that a half billion Greenway dollars are, for the most part, being spent unwisely. Since the Greenway only marginally impacts the tourist trade, economic development and environmental restoration, we're not getting the maximum bang for the Greenway buck, in our opinion.

Theater marquees in North Tonawanda and Lockport, playgrounds in the Falls, a dog park in Lewiston, harbor dredging in Wilson (which over the last century had previously been paid for by the federal government), municipal park upgrades in Lockport, Sanborn and Newfane and more recently a $2.27 million "reptile house renovation" in Buffalo approved earlier this year by Greenway Commissioners - the list goes on.

Two years ago, Assemblyman Ryan and State Senator Grisanti sponsored Greenway reform legislation in Albany, mandating that only those projects that directly advance the Greenway vision get funded. Assemblyman Ryan's bill was re-introduced this legislative term, and Grisanti's successor, Marc Panepinto, introduced a companion bill in the state senate just a month ago.

It remains to be seen whether Ryan and Panepinto are sincerely interested in advancing the bill, which so far has no cosponsors in the Assembly or Senate, or if they merely submitted it in response to our repeated stories on the issue. The proposed legislation was informed by a study released by the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), a local public interest research group led by UB professor Sam Magavern. The insightful report contained many good ideas for improving the Greenway plan.

Sam Magavern was subsequently appointed by the governor to the Niagara Greenway Commission. As a new Greenway commissioner, you'd think he'd avidly pursue the recommendations his organization came up with, but unfortunately, to this point he appears strangely detached.

We contacted Mr. Magavern earlier this year by email as follows: "a new legislature is in Albany and Assemblyman Ryan has reintroduced the Greenway reform bill, while Sen. Panepinto apparently has yet to introduce the senate counterpart. (We are) eager to find out the status of the reform that was proposed in the PPG study that you championed..." to which he responded, "I'm not sure of status of reform bill, so I've just sent an email to Assemblyman Ryan's staff to find out. I'll let you know what I hear."

He didn't get back to us on that, so in follow-up, we asked, "As a Greenway commissioner, are you going to work to advance the reforms called for by the PPG study you spearheaded?" He replied, "Yes, indeed, I'll be working on Greenway reforms as a commissioner. It helps that our chair, Greg Stevens, is very committed to the original Greenway vision. And at our last meeting he announced a plan to start moving the meetings around and not always have them on Grand Island. Best, Sam."

That email was more than three months and a few hundred thousand dollars ago. We've yet to hear if the Greenway meetings have gotten "moved around". Forty years from now, we're going to wonder where all that Greenway money went, or our children and grandchildren will. When they come to visit, that is.

Official Emblem of the Niagara River Greenway. When enjoying the Greenway, keep an eye out for tornadoes!







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