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By Jim Hufnagel

Way back in 1996, now-retired Niagara County Community College English professor Bob Baxter founded the Niagara Heritage Partnership, a small group dedicated to the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway and to restoring the Niagara Gorge rim.

The group embodied the essence of Margaret Mead's oft-repeated quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

With the Internet on the verge of becoming a powerful influence on our lives, the organization's ambition went public early on with the creation of a website, www.niagaraheritage.org, featuring such innovations for the time as an electronic petition.

Also prominent on the site is a list of the many governmental entities, local Niagara Falls block clubs, business and professional groups, and environmental, planning and advocacy organizations that endorse total parkway removal and reclamation of the Niagara Gorge.

There are two myths about the Niagara Heritage Partnership. The first is that the partnership is responsible for the present dangerous condition of the parkway: a seriously deteriorated two lanes that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual maintenance, traveled on by commuters who routinely speed and pass each other on its several blind turns.

In fact, NHP stridently opposed the pilot project of 2001 that reduced the speed limit and established two concrete hiking and biking lanes, the main use of which today is as a thoroughfare for park maintenance vehicles.

The second myth is that the partnership calls for parkway removal clear to Youngstown. NHP never has and never will campaign for removal of the parkway between Lewiston and Youngstown.

Removal of the parkway only means one thing for NHP: establishment of a world-class park and natural surroundings along the length of the Niagara Gorge from downtown Niagara Falls to Devil's Hole State Park, returning waterfront access to neighborhoods like DeVeaux, and contributing to the revitalization of Main Street, resulting in improvements to quality of life, real estate values, the local tourism economy and our national image.

Worlds in collision is an apt characterization of the conflict over parkway removal, pitting the city of Niagara Falls against its well-heeled, predominantly Republican suburbs to the north, Lewiston and Youngstown.

Lined up in opposition to parkway removal is an outfit calling itself the Parkway Preservation Committee, headed by ex-Village of Lewiston mayor Richard Soluri. The committee met in December to strategize for the parkway removal hearing held later that month. In attendance at the beginning of the meeting were Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board Chair Lisa Vitello and Niagara Falls City Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti.

They were ordered to leave amid taunts from the small crowd of Lewiston insiders. Witnesses report that a large man stood over the two seated women, glowering down at them until they decided to preserve their dignity by leaving the public forum.

"This is what we expect from you people in the Falls!" yelled out someone as the two women exited.

Physically intimidating two women, both public officials, at a meeting held on public property, was beyond a mere act of bullying. It was a despicable affront to our American way of life and the democratic process.

Neither Vitello nor Grandinetti would discuss their ordeal.

Zach Collister, transportation coordinator for the Saint-Gobain Technical Fabrics facility of Grand Island, recently circulated a white paper among the Preservation Committee titled "Reasons for Keeping & Revitalizing the Robert Moses Parkway" in advance of the final scoping hearings next month.

Collister proclaims the utility of the parkway: "Easy, flowing transport from as far as Wilson ... not to mention the State Parks of Grand Island."

He lists 30 attractions that would otherwise dry up and blow away were it not for the six miles of decrepit parkway that, as Department of Transportation studies reveal, carries a tiny fraction of the traffic it was designed for 50 years ago.

Highlights of his list include Main Street, Niagara Falls ("Someday when this is turned around, it will be right next to the parkway, allowing shopping access."); DeVeaux Woods State Park ("My own personal vision is that the old campus could be turned into a county museum some day."); Whirlpool State Park ("Great fishing, as well as the awe of seeing the cable car!"); and last but not least, the city of Niagara Falls, "containing the snowpark, helicopter rides and hopefully more attractions to come."

Jealous of the impressive Niagara Heritage Partnership website, Collister pouts, "They put out images such as these," and complains that "We currently have no propaganda against this."

But the real slam dunk of the entire document is at the end, where Collister declares, under the heading "Competition," "The competition is primarily the City of Niagara Falls."

This, from the Lewiston folks who constantly speak of "compromise."

At 8:32 p.m. on April 26, 2009, Parkway Preservation Committee member Robert A. Gallucci, PE, Engineering Manager for Environmental Design and Research of Rochester, who also serves as the alternate Niagara Falls National Heritage Area commissioner from Youngstown, spelled it out for me in an e-mail:

"I support the removal of the parkway, but happen to work with many people in the village ... the solution is so apparent if people would just sit down and analyze the physical world and lighten up their grasp on their dogma."

Several minutes later, at 8:50 p.m., he followed with an afterthought: "In fact I think I disagree with everything that Robert Moses ever did."

The most incongruous member of the Parkway Preservation Committee is Mount. St. Mary's, the hospital that moved from downtown Niagara Falls to Lewiston decades ago so as to be better situated to serve the poor.

The hospital and its emergency room, though only a stone's throw from the parkway, is miles from its nearest exit.

A hospital spokesman, Frederick Caso, stated that the hospital's concern was increased traffic at the Lewiston Road entrance to the hospital's affiliated nursing home facility, seemingly unaware that DOT traffic studies reveal that parkway removal would result in only one additional car on Lewiston Road every two minutes.

Trudy Hamilton, Communications Director for Ascension Health, the hospital chain to which Mount St. Mary's belongs, did not respond to a voice mail message.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 15, 2011