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GUEST VIEW By Jim Hufnagel

The top 10 most visited cities in the United States are New York, Chicago, Anaheim, Miami, Orlando, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia and San Diego, according to the Forbes magazine website.

Also according to Forbes, the top 10 United States tourist destinations are Times Square, the Vegas strip, the National Mall, Faneuil Hall, Disney Orlando, Disney Anaheim, Fisherman's Wharf, Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Navy Pier.

Compare the two lists and match city with tourist destination. It's clear why Orlando and Anaheim made the list -- they both host Disney. Times Square is in New York, of course, the strip, in Vegas, and the Navy Pier, Chicago.

Miami, Atlanta, Philly and San Diego are world-class cities with or without major tourist destinations, and Houston is the third largest city in the United States. It makes sense that they would be in the top 10.

Faneuil Hall, the National Mall and Fisherman's Wharf must get a boost simply due to the fact that they are located in major metropolitan areas.

Without resorting to statistical analysis, it's obvious there's a good correlation between the two lists, with one glaring exception: Niagara Falls.

Any assertion that the city of Niagara Falls should be a major metropolitan area due to its serendipitous proximity to the eighth most visited tourist attraction in the world would be a non sequitur.

On the other extreme, why would Niagara Falls lose half its population since 1950, despite its alleged status as the "host city" for one of the nation's premier tourist destinations?

Every reason imaginable has been offered to account for the decline of the city over the decades: loss of factory jobs, a misguided urban renewal program, corrupt and ineffective government.

Niagara Falls is the only city associated with the top 10 tourism list not only to experience negative growth, but in fact to crash and burn, implode in the most ghastly and painful manner a community can.

According to recently released U.S. Census figures, 17.3 percent of families living in the city of Niagara Falls are below the poverty level, compared with New York state at 10.5 percent and a 9.9 percent national poverty rate.

As of 2009, median household income for families in Niagara Falls was a whopping $20,000 less than the national average, and $24,000 less than the average for New York state.

Clearly, existing side by side with the eighth most traveled-to tourist destination in the nation has done little, if anything, for the local economy.

Why is that?

The answer is simple: Niagara Falls State Park is owned and operated by Albany. Tourists spend millions of dollars within the confines of the park without setting foot in the city of Niagara Falls. They park, eat, visit the Cave of the Winds and Maid of the Mist, buy souvenirs, and leave the area on the Robert Moses Parkway.

The state park was to be a legacy of special benefit to the citizens of Niagara Falls, bequeathed to us from generations past, to be protected and nurtured with respectful and responsible stewardship.

The renowned 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park to be a natural setting, with manmade amenities strictly forbidden. Olmsted specifically forbade commercial activities, mandating such activities to take place in and be a benefit to the surrounding city.

In Olmsted's own words:

"If it were a commercial undertaking into which the State was entering, in competition with the people of the village of Niagara, it cannot be questioned that (it) could be made profitable. But ... it is to be considered that no (structure) can be built upon the island that will not in some degree dispossess, obscure and disturb elements of its distinctive natural scenery."

Invoking the name of Olmsted shouldn't be the exclusive imperative of "tree-huggers." If the Olmsted plan for the park was a reality today, we would be realizing the economic benefit of the millions of tourists who visit Niagara Falls every summer, and the city of Niagara Falls would be experiencing affluence instead of poverty.

Here are Olmsted's thoughts on incursions on the park by rapacious robber barons like Delaware North, the multinational fast-food corporation owned by the billionaire Jacobs family of Buffalo:

"The question, then, is will the absence of places of refreshment cause such hardship to visitors ... there is no point in the Reservation at which a (food stand) can be placed that is more than ten minutes walk or five minutes drive from hotels and restaurants standing on land of private ownership ... the advantage of placing them within the Reservation, rather than at some other point within the village of Niagara Falls, cannot outweigh the objections that we have."

Olmsted didn't want horse-carriage traffic, let alone vehicular traffic, to detract from the experience of visiting the falls either:

"It is also further to be considered that, to persons disposed to look at the falls from the near the edge of the bank in an absorbed and contemplative way, carriages standing and moving close behind them, and all that is apt to occur in connection with numbers of waiting horses and drivers, may be seriously discomposing."

We can only imagine his dismay if he were to observe the multitude of parking lots, paved roadways, trolleys, cars, buses and dune buggies that today crowd the park

Olmsted specifically forbade maintenance or other buildings within the confines of the park:

"A Superintendent's office ... storage rooms, tool rooms and workshops for repairs ... should be accessible by carts without entering the roads of the Reservation and should not attract the attention of visitors within the Reservation ... as far from the shore and as much out of sight as possible."

Western Regional State Parks Director and Spitzer appointee Mark Thomas summoned me to his office one Friday nearly four years ago to answer for an editorial I had published exposing outright vandalism State Parks had perpetrated, filling in the bowls of century-old hand-carved stone drinking fountains in the park with cement, so that Delaware North could sell more Cokes and slushies.

I told him the Olmsted plan for the park was compromised beyond recognition and no longer in effect.

His response, which I'll never forget, was that he had studied Olmsted pursuant to his college degree in "Parks Administration," and that when it comes to the appalling debasement of the Olmsted plan, well, "different people have different ideas of what Olmsted really wanted."

Of course, those "different people" are Delaware North and Maid of the Mist and other corporate masters of Mark Thomas and State Parks.

Then I told him that the city of Niagara Falls realizes a fraction of the economic benefit from the attraction that it should.

His response?

He rolled his eyes, while extending his arms to either side, palms up.

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 9 a.m., the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission will meet for the second time at the Power Vista in Lewiston. Establishment of a National Heritage Area will require the expertise of the National Park Service to develop Niagara Falls into a tourist resource on par with the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

While wresting control of the park from the hands of Albany and its corporate patrons may be beyond its purview, a clear statement of mission, as adopted by the National Park Service, endorsing restoration of the Olmsted vision for the Niagara Falls State Park, is vital to our collective interest.

There will be an opportunity for public comment on Wednesday. Here is a list of the top 10 commissioners: Thomas, Glynn, Schoepflin, Percy, Dyster, Conway, Hanson, van Harssel, Gallucci and Marra. Let them know what you think.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 25, 2011