It was a sight to behold.
A beautiful, balmy Saturday night at Niagara Falls State Park, the falls themselves illuminated majestically and the fireworks display exploding overhead. And down in the basin, two gaily lit cruise boats, carrying 700 tourists apiece, made their way to and from their Canadian docks at the base of Clinton Hill for the best view of the awesome spectacle.
The brand new catamarans are owned and operated by Hornblower Cruises and operate from docks formerly used by Jimmy Glynn’s Maid of the Mist boats.
Now confined to some hastily constructed makeshift docks on the American side of the Niagara River, the Maid of the Mist boats don’t sail at night, offer no seating or lavatories and don’t have a licensed bar, food service or other amenities.
Glynn lost his contract to operate on the Canadian side following a government inquiry into his company’s relationship with members of the Niagara Parks Commission, who were ultimately removed from the commission or forced to resign. The contract to operate the tour boat service in the park was let on a competitive bidding process that saw Hornblower blow the Maid of the Mist out of the water.
The inquiry stemmed from a series of investigative articles written by the Niagara Falls Reporter Publisher Frank Parlato and published on these pages.
Things were different on the American side, where Glynn’s political campaign contributions and association with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership allow him to wield considerable clout. Politicians from Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer threw their full support behind him.
There were no official calls for an investigation, and no open, competitive bidding process.
New York State awarded Glynn the contract despite the fact that Hornblower representatives had publicly said they would offer $100 million more.
The nightly Falls Illumination Cruise is a truly extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the ultimate in Niagara nighttime entertainment. Set to starry skies this 40-minute cruise provides stunning panoramic views of the dazzling city lights and famous colored illumination of the falls.
By contrast, the Maid of the Mist’s daytime only tours last but 20 minutes, and sightseers are packed like standing room only sardines onto the decks of the smallish boats.
This past Saturday evening, Parlato took a visiting friend to the park for the fireworks display.
He hadn’t gone to see the boats, but the sight of 1,400 tourists enjoying themselves conjured the memory of the long battle to improve the quality of tour boats in the basin.
“Sometimes in the newspaper business, you wonder whether or not what you’re doing has an impact,” Parlato said. “I hadn’t even thought about it in quite awhile, but seeing those two beautiful catamarans brought the whole thing rushing back.”
The Reporter got involved with the situation after whistleblower Bob Gale, who had been removed from the Niagara Parks Commission, came forth with allegations about improprieties in the relationship between the agency and Glynn. Over the course of more than 70 stories, Parlato made the case that other tour operators could provide superior service at reduced cost were it not for the fact that Glynn’s undue influence prevented open and competitive bidding.
On this side of the river, political leaders had long argued that, since Glynn had the contract on the Canadian side, it only made sense that he would have the American side as well. There simply wasn’t room in the basin for two different companies, and the American side lacked dry dock facilities for the storage of the boats in winter months.
After Glynn lost the Canadian franchise, politicians tripped over each other in their effort to construct a new paradigm and new dry docks on the American side, trampling the usual environmental impact studies that normally accompany major construction projects on state park land.
And suddenly, the decades old argument that only one tour boat company could operate in the basin disappeared as though it had never existed.
Hornblower sued the state in an attempt to open the bidding process up in New York, but their case and a subsequent appeal was rejected by judges who essentially said that the state Parks Commission knew what was best.
In Canada, after the contract to run the tour boat concession beneath the falls was thrown open to public bidding, Hornblower Niagara, offered to pay the Ontario government $500 million over 30 years, some $300 million more than Glynn proposed in the Maid of the Mist's original deal.
In New York, Hornblower offered to pay $100 million more than what Glynn had offered.
“Oddly, we’re a New York newspaper that, in this case, seemed to have far more influence in Ontario than we did in New York,” Parlato said. “We helped open up the basin to competition, which is always a good thing, but the better tour being offered only on the Canadian side just gives tourists another reason to avoid Niagara Falls, New York.”
On this side of the river, people still wait in long lines under a blazing sun for a chance to ride on the Maid of the Mist.
Another Hornblower innovation, computerized timed-ticketing, has eliminated much of the discomfort on the Canadian side.
“Stay on the Canadian side,” is a trope dating back as far as the 1970s, uttered by experienced travelers to Niagara Falls neophytes asking advice. The actions of the local and state governments to protect and preserve Jimmy Glynn’s cash cow here serve merely to reinforce the accepted wisdom.
Following the Canadian decision to terminate the Maid of the Mist contract and open the process up, Parlato wrote an editorial summing up the situation, and the Reporter’s role in it.
“The fault of the Maid of the Mist scandal doesn't lie with (Glynn),” Parlato wrote. “He is, after all, a businessman doing what he can to serve his own interests. Who can blame him for taking sweetheart deals, or even facilitating them?
“The fault lies with us, our failure to demand transparency, our passivity over the fact that government makes secret deals with private businessmen for leases on public land. No businessman could have gotten a no-bid sweetheart deal at the public's expense without secrecy. The public has the right to know every nuance of every deal involving public land.”
His words now ring true on the Canadian side of the mighty Niagara River. On the American side, not so much.