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A Tale of Two Tourist Attractions

By James Hufnagel

Map of Niagara Falls as New York State Parks depicts it in their official tourist brochure.
Stonehenge is 5,000 years old. It will take that long to repair the damage done by Cuomo and State Parks to the Niagara Falls State Park.

Enigmatic. Spellbinding. Vaguely foreboding.

And because of recent events, instructive.

The ruins of Stonehenge have brooded over a treeless expanse of English countryside for millennia. The exact origin and purpose of the strange array of huge monoliths remains obscure, however, experts generally agree that the larger stones composing the monument as it appears today were put in place sometime around 2500 BC. It's believed to have served various religious and calendar functions for prehistoric Druids who populated the region at the time.

Over the past two years the Brits have been carrying out an upgrade and renovation of the Stonehenge site at the same time that, on this side of the pond, New York State Parks has been busy implementing its Niagara Falls State Park Landscape Improvements Plan.

The philosophical differences between the two government entities in their respective approaches to stewardship of two world-famous tourist attractions is a study in contrasts, and as different as night and day.

While the British have proceeded with respect and regard for the cultural, historic and esthetic considerations due a timeless treasure like Stonehenge, NY State Parks, under the leadership of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, has fostered a plan that guarantees the trashing of the iconic Falls for generations to come.

As a general rule, Europeans tend to operate on a different time scale than we do, so it should come as no surprise that they first started talking about improving Stonehenge back in 1927.

It wasn't until 2000 that a detailed planning phase commenced. Over the next decade public hearings were held and public comments accepted and considered. Then the whole thing was shelved because of the 2008 financial crisis. Refunded in 2011 to the tune of 27 million pounds ($44 million), the project was pronounced completed last month.

Compare that to the process followed by Cuomo and State Parks in formulating their Niagara Falls "Landscape Improvements" plan, which they initiated after a New York Times travel writer described Niagara Falls State Park as "shabby" in a May 26, 2011 article. A brief five days later, on June 1, Don Glynn cited the Times piece in his own Niagara Gazette column.

As examined over the past two years in this newspaper, the Niagara Falls Landscape Improvements Plan was created without benefit of public hearings or public comment, implemented without oversight under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and, in bulldozing a land bridge over a section of the Niagara River in order to transport heavy equipment across to level Three Sisters Islands, resulted in a serious and deliberate violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Vastly different from how the Stonehenge planning and execution took place.

In addition to the $25 million in Greenway funds which are being squeezed out of NYPA ratepayers and gifted to State Parks in what amounts to a transfer of money from one state bureaucracy to another, the Governor's staff recently announced that an additional $15 million from something called the "New York Works" program will be thrown into the pot. New York Works all right, trouble is, it works for State Parks and Albany, not us, given that the "improvements", more paved parking spaces, trolley stops and backyard patio-style pavilions, will serve to further isolate the eight million annual visitors in the park rather than the city of Niagara Falls.

In fact, State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey and Western Region Director Mark Thomas have been working to sell the notion to local media in speeches and interviews, wringing their hands in properly affected wistfulness and regret, that the Olmsted plan for Niagara Falls State Park, while noble in its time, isn't feasible anymore since Olmsted anticipated only 200,000 visitors for the park annually instead of the eight million at present.

But they never explain why eight million tourists require food stands and a restaurant, 1,200 parking spaces, coin-operated binoculars, tulip beds, statuary, gift and souvenir shops, banners and flags advertising attractions, numerous and redundant blacktop paths, cheesy photo portrait booths and now spans of Home Depot-style patio, all of which Olmsted rejected in his plan.

At Stonehenge, a road and parking lot in close proximity to the mystic ruins were removed. A new visitors center was constructed a full 1.5 miles away, so as to be completely out-of-sight. Visitors must take a shuttle to within a few hundred yards of the monument and walk an ancient road to approach it. The entire grounds of Stonehenge has been reseeded with native grasses. The landscape and attraction engenders meditation of grass, sky, the otherworldly stones and nothing else.

An experience of awe and wonder, bordering on the surreal.

"This is a radical change for the million people a year who come to Stonehenge. They can see the stones for the first time free from the clutter and rubbish that have accrued around them since the 1960s. We now have something that I think is worthy of one of the world's greatest archaeological sites" said Simon Thurley of English Heritage.

Andrew Cuomo, Rose Harvey, Mark Thomas - let's send them to Stonehenge on a fact-finding junket.

And then cancel their passports.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Jan 07, 2014