City Council Nixes State’s “Outdoor Recreation” plan

In Niagara Falls

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This graphic from the UB School of Architecture and Planning Alumni Magazine of a nature trail in Buffalo may give you an idea of what the state’s point person for the Niagara Gorge Outdoor Recreation proposal, Robert Sozanski, has in mind for the nature trails of the gorge.

USA Niagara, ESD bar media, disinvite NF Reporter correspondent from attending Info Tour

State Parks, NYPA and USA Niagara recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the purpose of establishing activities such as bicycling, ziplining, rockclimbing and horseback riding at Niagara Falls State Park and along the Niagara Gorge, however, a resolution passed Monday by the City Council may have effectively strangled the initiative in the crib.

According to the 64-page “Outdoor Recreation and Programming & Associated Real Estate Development” RFP document, the three state agencies plan to adopt, in accordance with Governor Cuomo’s directives, a “synergistic approach to expand the entire outdoor recreational economy at Niagara… NOT to merely monetize a few of the most potentially profitable activities… in order to assist in growing visitorship and extending stays in the City of Niagara Falls, as well as to enhance the quality of life here.”

It took less than a month for City Council to push back, resolving that “the State of New York (should) limit any new commercial development, including new attractions, to the (city’s) cultural district, and allow the popular nature trails and paths along the Niagara Gorge, encompassing Whirlpool State Park and Devil’s Hole State Park, to remain untouched so that Olmsted’s early vision of natural beauty might be preserved for current visitors and future generations to enjoy.”

This forceful declaration by the council, indicating complete lack of support for new obtrusive infrastructure in and around the Niagara Gorge (for example, “‘outfitting’ facilities… as part of other developed facilities, where in addition to restrooms, hikers or birders might rent gear, purchase food for a picnic, obtain guidebooks, engage with experts, etc.” as stated in the RFP) most certainly flies in the face of Gov. Cuomo’s economic development philosophy here, which is, slather “Buffalo Billion” money on well-heeled, politically-connected campaign contributors to, put simply, build stuff.

In addition, the council’s implied opposition to activities typified by screaming teenagers on ziplines or horses leaving steaming deposits on the gorge’s nature trails, also in violation of Olmsted’s principles, may be predicted to have the net effect of dampening the enthusiasm of respondents to the RFP.

Action/adventure purveyor Wildplay Element Parks, which built this extreme sports obstacle course in Canada on the Niagara Gorge, directly opposite from Whirlpool State Park on the American side, has been invited to go on the Niagara Gorge tour.

Inexplicably, the council resolution states that “Whereas, the Niagara Gorge and the New York State Parks that align it… fall within the limits of the city of Niagara Falls;”

While it’s true that the city’s brave fire and police departments routinely perform rescues in the gorge and retrieve bodies from the Niagara River, it’s also true that the city doesn’t get reimbursed for these services, nor does the city benefit from any property or sales taxes or parking lot fees from the $20 million a year Niagara Falls State Park, or even have the right to collect tolls on the Scenic Moses Parkway, that cuts the city off from the economic, environmental and quality of life benefits of the waterfront.

Perhaps mindful of the public uproar that erupted in response to Gov. Cuomo’s “Niagara Lodge on Goat Island” bright idea, USA Niagara, the local subsidiary of Empire State Development, appears to have taken steps to obscure the bidding process from the public.

For one thing, the only place on the entire internet you can access the Outdoor Recreation RFP is at the New York State Department of Economic Development contract reporter website, where one must first establish an account (a laborious, security-laden task that involves entering information about yourself and proving you’re not a web-bot) and then come up with the right keywords to find the needle-in-a-haystack document. It took this writer a good 15 minutes to locate and download the file.

Second, the media (and presumably, the public at large) have been officially disinvited from the secretive “Formal Niagara Gorge Site Tour” to be conducted by USA Niagara on July 31 for select potential bidders.

On Thursday, July 20, Associate Planner and Project Manager Robert Sozanski of Empire State Development sent out a reminder about the gorge tour to 72 email recipients, including developers such as Advanced Architecture and TM Montante, law firms including Crowe and Crowe and Harris Beach, design and engineering firms like Wendel Companies and Foit-Albert Associates, action/adventure purveyors Xanterra and Wildplay (which is responsible for the eyesore opposite Whirlpool State Park on the Canadian side), hotel and food service conglomerates Delaware North and Westgate, and assorted commercial real estate firms, adventure outfitters, public relations houses, a Buffalo company specializing in “video solutions,” real estate appraisers, consultants of every stripe, bid clearinghouses and even a company that coordinates housing for out-of-town workers.

Mr. Sozanski’s reminder was also sent to two representatives of the media, reporter Thomas Prohaska of the Buffalo News, and this writer, whose email doesn’t reflect employment at the Reporter.

I RSVP’d to the USA Niagara phone number given by Mr. Sozanski’s email, identifying myself as a writer for the Reporter.

“Dear James, We received your inquiry for attending the tour on July 31 associated with the RFP issued for a master licensee to establish a comprehensive outdoor recreation program in Niagara Falls,” emailed Amanda Mays, Senior Project Manager for Empire State Development, the very next day. “We have been contacted with requests from several members of the media, and at this time are only allowing attendees from companies interested in bidding on the project.”

Thomas Prohaska, Niagara County reporter for The Buffalo News. USA Niagara withdrew its invitation to the media to go on the Niagara Gorge tour soon after discovering that the Reporter wanted to attend.

To summarize, in the space of 24 hours, two media representatives were invited to attend the “Formal Niagara Gorge Site Tour,” and then disinvited when it was learned one of them was from the Reporter. Or maybe it was because of the onslaught of media requests that Ms. Mays claims to have received overnight.

This entire affair is a fine example of the appalling lack of transparency we have come to expect from Gov. Cuomo’s secretive USA Niagara and Empire State Development agencies and his “Buffalo Billion” aid program.

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