By Mike Hudson;
A great percentage of the visitors coming to see Niagara Falls arrive via the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. About halfway between the airport and the falls themselves is Grand Island, a charming, almost rustic community in the middle of the Niagara River that tourists must cross to get to the falls.
For most of its history, Grand Island has served as a bedroom community for Buffalo and Niagara Falls, a quiet place where 20,000 or so residents find respite from the urban environs to the north and south.
That may be about to change, and that may be the best thing that ever happened on the island.
Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray wants to close West River Parkway in order to build a bike path along the Niagara River. He’s posted a helicopter view of the parkway on Youtube pointing out that West River Parkway and West River Road run parallel.
The video, titled “West River: U See Any Cars?” has been viewed nearly 1,000 times since it was uploaded recently.
“Two roads,” he writes in the video. “If we close one, we get a path worth millions.”
In his post, McMurray said he and his friend, the helicopter pilot, traveled back and forth along the parkway from the air four times last Saturday, looking for vehicle traffic.
“We saw one car,” he said.
McMurray called West River Parkway a “dead road,” noting that it’s not maintained during the winter.
As the one-minute video ends, McMurray implores residents to support the plan for the bike path.
“I’m trying to persuade people,” he said. “The only way to get it done is to think creatively.”
McMurray said he’s trying to get residents to think outside of the box when it comes to ideas for Grand Island.
“I want to get people excited about things,” he said. “If you want different results, you have to try something different.”
McMurray and other supporters of the parkway removal plan envision not only a bike path, but an eight-mile stretch of waterfront access that would be perhaps the most spectacular on the Niagara Frontier.
Under the proposed plan, the parkway would be resurfaced, no lighting or guardrails would be added, and there would not be an impact on the waterfront. The town worked with the state on the design of the path.
“It’ll be a world-class bike path because of its location on the water,” he said.
The path would connect Beaver Island and Buckhorn state parks, as well as Buffalo and Niagara Falls, McMurray said.
“It’s an extension of Buffalo’s waterfront,” he said. “The good things happening in Buffalo are leaking into the suburbs.”
But it would be – McMurray emphasized in an interview with the Reporter – more than – he repeats- more than a bike path but a whole new potentially world class park, which could take its place alongside the region’s other great waterfront parks.
The ongoing controversy about whether to close the West River Parkway to create a bike path can be seen as part of a larger conflict, one that pits longtime residents against more recent arrivals in determining the future of what has traditionally been a semi-rural bedroom community.
McMurray is an attorney and a vice president at Delaware North, which he’s been with since 2014. Delaware North manages and provides food and beverage concessions, premium dining, entertainment, lodging, and retail at many large venues and special places. These include sports stadiums, entertainment complexes, airports, casinos and national and state parks including Niagara Falls State Park.
McMurray has made no secret of the fact that he’d like to see a program of “sensible” development on the island that would turn it into a tourist destination.
McMurray said he sees Grand Island as an “undiscovered gem,” that is too often dismissed as “pass-through territory,” and could instead be a center for tourism and development.
“It’s an island the size of Manhattan, in the middle of the Niagara River, at the edge of Niagara Falls,” McMurray said. “I think Grand Island can be a lot more.”
The youthful McMurray, 40, grew up in North Tonawanda but has spent much of his adult life in the Far East, working for companies like Samsung and Hyundai. He said he recalls Grand Island fondly from his childhood and, when he decided to return to the Niagara Frontier, chose to make his home there.
On August 1, Grand Island Town Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject the bike path plan put forward by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Niagara River Greenway Commission that would have closed the West River Parkway.
Congressman Brian Higgins fired off a letter to State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, which McMurray then posted on his Facebook page. Higgins said he strongly supported turning the parkway into a bike path.
Higgins noted “great strides” made to create waterfront access for the public “centered around pedestrian, bicycle and paddle craft access and other recreational uses.”
“The decision regarding which alternative to pursue for this project will have generational significance,” Higgins said. “To persist with the extant Robert Moses-inspired, car-centric, wasteful and under-utilized infrastructure, as opposed to replacing it with this smarter, greener alternative would be a mistake not soon undone.”
McMurray has stressed that since there are two roads, virtually side by side, West River Road and West River Parkway, the Parkway is redundant, little used and will make a superior bike path along one of the most famous rivers in the world.
Critics of the plan are, for the most part, longtime Grand Island residents who are understandably content with keeping things the way they are. Creating an eight-mile resort destination along the island’s west banks would certainly impact the status quo.
People might come from all over the world to see and enjoy the gold coast of the Niagara’ west river. Besides biking, swimming (shallow waters by the shore make it an intriguing water destination), jet skiing, fishing, boating, sunbathing, picnicking and hiking alongside mature and shady trees could make the West River a recreational haven never seen before.
When combined with Buckhorn Island State Park- an idyllic canoe, kayak and hiking refuge and Beaver Island Park – an rare river beach – both on the island – suddenbly Grand Island has a toruism trio that could attract millions of people who visit the falls to stop over and stay the day or the night.
The odds of a future financial bonanza are great.
The ramifications of creating yet another tourist destination between Buffalo and Niagara Falls are huge.
The history of the region has been one of spurning new ideas. It has not worked out well. What happens in Grand Island remains to be seen.