It’s like déjà vu all over again.
Preserve Our Parks, a grassroots Canadian organization that worked hand in glove with the Niagara Falls Reporter in opening up to competitive bidding the tour boat business once dominated by Jimmy Glynn’s Maid of the Mist, has embarked on a new crusade, this time to stop the development of a zip line attraction on the Canadian side of the gorge without proper vetting and environmental study.
“Unfortunately, Niagara Parks, as an agency of the Ontario government, comes under the Ministry of Tourism,” wrote James Bannister on behalf of the organization. “Throughout the life of the NPC there has been conflict between the mandate for stewardship and environmentalism and the perceived necessity (for reasons of revenue generation) of including in NPC operations a number of ‘tourism and adventure attractions.’”
The proposed attraction would consist of four zip lines running approximately 2200 feet along the west wall of the Niagara Gorge, from the Grand View Market in Queen Victoria Park to the base of the old Ontario Power Company generating station facing the Horseshoe Falls.
Harnessed tourists attached to the line will be able to descend the gorge in front of the American Falls in record time and provide an experience that will undoubtedly be thrilling.
The attraction will be clearly visible to passengers on the Hornblower Niagara Cruises and the Maid of the Mist excursion boats, and also visitors to the New York State Park on the east side of the gorge.
“To say that it will not enhance the beauty of the gorge is an understatement,” Bannister wrote.
A second attraction, an aerial adventure course, will allow customers to move from tree to tree using log ladders, rope swings, scrambling walls, hanging nets, spinning logs, wobbly bridges, tightropes, monkey bars and zip lines rising above the forest canopy, is also planned above the Niagara Whirlpool at Thompson Point.
While most details of the attractions have not been made public, it is known that if approval is granted by the Ontario government, the project will be designed, built and operated by a partnership consisting of WildPlay Ltd., of British Columbia, a developer of zip line / aerial adventure parks, and a startup company called Niagara Adventure Excursions Inc., founded in 2013, whose corporate officers have not been publicly identified.
The Reporter has identified at least one of the corporate owners of the secretive Niagara Adventure Excursions, whose own website names no board or directors or owners – while bragging that the company has loads of development experience - as the DiCosimo family - owners of the 965 room Hilton Hotel and Suites/ Fallsview in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“The nature of the ‘Zipline and Aerial Adventure Course’ is clear. It is a tourist attraction and only that,” Bannister wrote. “It will be run for profit -- a great deal of profit -- in which we hope NPC will share. However, in the interest of transparency, projected revenue, profit and profit-sharing figures should be released before final approval is given.”
In late May, the NPC announced they received approval from the Province of Ontario to enter into an agreement with Niagara Adventure Excursions to develop and operate the zip line attractions. However, the NPC acknowledged that additional studies are required before a final agreement can be signed and construction can begin.
To date the NPC has downplayed any potential adverse visual impacts the zip lines and their riders may have on the views of millions of visitors to Niagara Falls who are drawn here because of the visual resources of the area, instead focusing on the views zip line riders will enjoy.
Banister said Preserve Our Parks objects to the process by which the project has been developed and approved.
“We object to the lack of public input and lack of transparency,” he wrote. “Even more strongly do we object to the approval of this project without any assessment of its impact on the environment of the Niagara Falls World Heritage Site, designated by UNESCO as being in danger.”
"The new zip line attraction at Grand View Marketplace and aerial adventure course at Thompson Point will provide visitors with a breathtaking, authentic Niagara Falls and Niagara Parks experience,” said NPC chair Janice Thomson. “These two new attractions are in keeping with Niagara Parks other natural attractions and provide another unique way to interpret the falls, the Niagara Gorge and all the lands along the Niagara Parkway, without impacting views or access enjoyed by other visitors to the falls.”
Preserve Our Parks was remarkably effective in organizing against the NPC, a campaign that led to the state of the art Hornblower Niagara Cruises vessels being available to tourists on the Canadian side of the river.
The current NPC board was put in place in the aftermath of the Maid of the Mist scandal, and they and the developers of the project would do well to make sure that everything is open and above board this time around.
In a letter to the Niagara Falls Reporter last week, Bannister wrote, “Your article (Will Canadian Zip Line Blemish New York and Canadian Views of Falls? By Frank Parlato and James Hufnagel published JUNE 9, 2015) was a big factor in spurring our group to send a protest to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.
“I'll keep you posted as to any response we get.
This was how the Maid of the Mist lease was unraveled.
Back in 2009, when Jim Bannister and Pat Mangoff and the rest of the group at Preserve our Parks contacted the Reporter with almost the identical message.
The powerful activist group Preserve Our Parks wrote to the premier, the Integrity Commissioner and the minister of tourism "demanding" the lease be sent back for competitive bidding.
Soon enough, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union joined in and called upon the minister of tourism to dissolve the NPC.
Union president Warren "Smokey" Thomas, posted our stories on union websites and announced to the Canadian media that the Niagara parks are "deteriorating while the commission makes irresponsible spending decisions," like its "decision to renew the lease of the Maid of the Mist without going to tender."
Alcatraz Media spokesperson Bill Windsor filed suit with the Ontario Superior Court seeking to set aside Glynn's lease and let other companies, including his own, bid on it.
Kim Craitor, a member of Parliament whose Niagara Falls riding takes in all NPC parklands, announced plans to reintroduce a bill requiring openness from provincial agencies. The secret no-bid lease renewal, Craitor said, "doesn't shine a positive light on the parks commission. (The Niagara parks are) the jewel of our community. These types of things start to tarnish that jewel."
NPC Commissioner Bob Gale, who owns a chain of gas stations in Ontario, was the whistle-blowing commissioner who went public (to the Reporter), alleging that then NPC Chairman Jim Williams, Vice Chairman Archie Katzman and NPC General Manager John Kernahan worked furtively to ensure that world-famous Ripley Entertainment -- which expressed interest in bidding on the lease -- was excluded, while simultaneously neglecting to tell other commissioners about Ripley's interest.
The Reporter continued to write stories (some 80,000 words). Finally the Toronto Globe and Mail picked up one of our stories about how the rent to the Maid of the Mist was secretly reduced while they publicly claimed they had raised the rent. The Globe secured an accountant that proved our assertion that the rent was reduced by at least $600,000 per year.
The rest is history.
Now in the exact same order Preserve Our Parks (there is nothing like these folks on the New York Side – so don’t hold your breath- Americans round these parts don’t have their kind of gumption) is involved in a story that we wrote that we “smelled something funny about these zip lines.”
They may be great or they may make the falls into even more of a circus side show.
But where are the visual simulation studies needed to show what this is going to look like when you have hundreds of people daily gliding down the gorge in front of the falls?
Where is the disclosure of revenue sharing in the Zip Line deal – also absent in the Maid of the Mist deal that got it set aside.
It’s like Déjà vu.
All, over, again.