NIAGARA GORGE PLAN
NIAGARA HERITAGE PARTNERSHIP
Comments made to the Main Street Business and Professionals Association, the LaSalle Business Association, and the Niagara Street Business Association at the Earl W. Brydges Public Library, Niagara Falls, New York, 31 May 2000.
The Niagara Heritage Partnership is a group of people who advocate the preservation and restoration of the region's natural environment, and who encourage socially responsible development. The question before us this evening is how waterfront revitalization, generally, and, more specifically, the restoration of the natural environment can relate to an improved business environment for the North End, Main Street and other communities. The Niagara Heritage Partnership believes the answer is clear and we'll attempt to elaborate on the proposal here that we first made in the fall of 1997.
In order for the North End business to grow and prosper, a new clientele needs to be developed. As you know, the era when Main Street U.S.A. provided most of the consumer goods to city residents is generally over, except for notable exceptions, superceded by discount stores and shopping malls in areas away from the cities. When we mention a new clientele, therefore, we refer to two populations: the millions of tourists who visit the city annually, just a mile or two away, and the brand new, emerging population of ecotourists who seek interaction with the natural environment when vacationing, even selecting vacation spots based on that single criterion. Main Street and other Niagara business communities can benefit from both groups.
These groups, incidentally, are infrequently separate and distinct from one another, but are intermingled. We speak about them separately because separate strategies might be required to market the business districts, at least in the initial stages. With that in mind, let us first look at what our proposal entails, how it fits in with the larger plans of our region, and what specifically will appeal to ecotourists.
The Niagara Heritage Partnership proposes removing the portion of the Robert Moses Parkway which runs along the top of the Niagara Gorge between Niagara Falls, New York, and Lewiston, New York, and that the gorgetop be restored with forest, and long-grass wildflower meadow. Hiking and bicycling trails would travel the entire 6.5 mile length. This restoration plan is consistent with the recent announcement by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation that Goat Island, the Niagara Reservation, will be restored to and maintained in a more natural condition. Such a restoration and trail creation proposal is also consistent regionally, providing the "middle link" for trails to be constructed along the upper river and the trail currently being completed from Lewiston, New York, to Youngstown, New York. This would provide nearly 20 miles of unparalleled hiking and bicycling trails attractive to ecotourists whose projected economic impact to our region is extremely high, based on evidence from other communities where such trails have been created. Our trails would be especially attractive because our region, most notably the Niagara River Corridor, is located in a major flyway for migrating birds, for which it has received international recognition. In December, 1996, groups such as the National Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservatory, the Canadian Nature Federation, and Bird Studies Canada gathered to designate the Niagara River and its shorelines as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area, vital to migrating birds and crucial to the long-term survival of North American bird populations. Parkway removal and natural restoration would add over 300 acres to this critical habitat.
The Falls at Niagara are the largest nontropical waterfalls on earth. Known the world over as an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, they and surrounding wilderness areas are worthy of our protection. As P.M. Eckel, a Research Associate in Botany at the Buffalo Museum of Science, wrote in the Clintonia, Magazine of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society:
Every shrub, tree or herb in the Niagara River Gorge and Falls area is of historic importance. The vegetation is the matrix within which human beings have discovered the soul-stirring spectacle of the Falls, and is an inextricable part of the Canadian and American national treasure that is the Niagara River. It is within the forest canopy that the Seneca interacted with the French, the British, the (Revolutionary) Americans and (Loyalist) Canadians; within its greenery, economic features developed according to the genius of the national temperaments of two nations, and the international struggle to keep the Niagara woodlands [that] took shape in mid to later 1800's. That struggle continues.
The Niagara Heritage Partnership is part of that struggle, and it is in this context that we offer our proposal for the restoration of the Niagara gorgetop.
Such a restoration will create a natural environment that will protect the existing rare plants, including remarkable cliff-face gorge cedars that began life in the 1600s, before Europeans spread over the continent, and including the old growth forest and its understory plants on the property at DeVeaux, recently acquired by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation to be a part of our state park system. Removing the four lanes of ugly concrete and replacing them with flowing long-grass wildflower meadows and forested areas would recreate a landscape lost to us centuries ago, as described by Father Hennepin in 1678: "almost all prairies mingled with some oaks and firs," he wrote.
This marvelous landscape would be intriguing to even the casual tourist, for whom it would be possible, in ordinary street clothing, to spend time walking some portion of the gorgetop hiking path. The long grasses would provide cover for groundnesting birds, the wildflowers would quickly attract native butterflies. For those visitors who seek out green vacations, and there are millions of them, including 54.1 million birders, our region would be especially appealing.
The Niagara Heritage proposal does eliminate the inappropriate vehicle traffic along the length of the gorgetop. It does not, however, limit vehicular access to the gorge at various points, from which it can still be enjoyed by people who are unable, unwilling, or simply too foot-weary to walk through this wonderful region of wilderness. Automobiles, viewmobiles, tour buses, and other people movers will still be able to travel the short distance from Main Street to an impressive gorge overlook at the Schoellkopf Geological Museum, surrounded by a mowed grass, landscaped park. The Aquarium of Niagara, a short distance from gorgetop, would be accessible by city street or by walkover from Schoellkopf, as it is now. Whirlpool State Park would be vehicle-accessible from Lewiston Road on a reconfigured Findlay Drive extension. Devil's Hole would remain accessible to vehicles from the Lewiston Road parking lot currently in use. The Power Vista would still provide parking and the gorge vista for which it was named. That adds up to four vehicle access points in four miles. If we were to count other gorge views accessible by vehicle or short walks, and we intend to, then the views from Terrapin Point, Cave of the Winds, the Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Observation Tower, Prospect Point, the Crow's Nest and other points along roads and bridges should add at least seven more, plus the dramatic view from ArtPark where the gorge ends almost abruptly, falling away to high river banks, which brings the total to twelve. We believe that is sufficient.
We reject the notion that part or all of the parkway should be kept because it functions as a transportation highway to, through, or around the city for residents living north of the falls. That rationale is not legitimate. There are other serviceable routes.
Removing the four lanes of the parkway that divides Whirlpool State Park from the old growth forest at DeVeaux would permit the forest to extend itself toward Whirlpool. The mature trees on the median there, spared by parkway construction 40 years ago, would become part of the forest again. The spreading forest would be contained by the edge of the Whirlpool mowed-grass park. Inside the park, visitors who are sightseeing and picnicking would enjoy the experience of being in a forest clearing, bounded on one side by the Niagara Gorge.
Devil's Hole State Park, the site where 50 to 60 soldiers were massacred by the Senecas, is dishonored by parkway lanes, reduced to a pathetic sliver of mowed grass and a parking lot. The 1992 Niagara Waterfront Master Plan proposes further disrespect: enlarging the parking lot and constructing a "turn-around," presumably for people movers. In contrast, The Niagara Heritage Partnership believes this ground should be enlarged by parkway removal, restored, and treated as a memorial to those who died in early conflict on the Niagara Frontier.
Most significant to the business community, with the parkway gone, running state-sanctioned people movers along the gorgetop, as proposed by the Master Plan, will no longer be a possibility. Now the creative ideas put forth in the Main Street business communities' 10-year plan begin to assume their full potential, one in particular. Now the opportunity for viewmobile or trackless trolleys, or double-decker, open-top tour vehicles following a Main Street route can be vigorously pursued. These would combine the urban and natural environment experience, providing historical, architectural, city tours with side trips to DeVeaux, Whirlpool, and Devil's Hole State Parks, the Castellani Art Museum, the Power Vista, and ArtPark. People here this evening can probably name focal points other than the Armory, the old Carnegie Library, the local history floor and gift shop of the Earl W. Brydges Library, the gallery at Now Graphics, the collection of Niagara volumes at the Book Corner, and the historic stone wall at Ontario and Main.
The idea of these city tours needs to move beyond the conceptual into a fleshed out, detailed plan--what routes should be traveled, what points of interest covered, what information provided--a plan complete enough to sell, a plan lacking only the hardware, the actual trains or buses. While individual van tours will be an important component of city tours, they would be no substitute for the long visit, high volume, multiple departure, regularly scheduled "viewmobile" variety tours.
Would tour guides have to learn about the treasures that Niagara has to share? Of course they would. Perhaps local historians and history teachers, the Urban Design Group, and the Inventory of Historic Resources could help with this. Do new businesses catering to visitors need to open? Of course they do. How many months lead time would be needed if we knew the parkway were to be gone and people movers were to begin making regular stops to drop off and pick up people at various spots on Main Street? Could sidewalk cafes and souvenir shops open or tables be set up? Could vendors, street musicians, and bands be invited? Photography galleries or studios? Street photographers? Additional dining accommodations? Can we imagine a bicycle rental business? Could concrete planters line the street, complementing the "flowering grates" idea of the 10-year plan, and extending the park theme into the city? Could a few more trees be planted? If storefronts are still covered with sheets of particleboard that first touring season, those should become canvases, covered with murals depicting various aspects of Niagara history, LaSalle's Griffon, fur traders, early forts, industry, power generation, daredevils and so on. We certainly have more history, more stories, than we have sheets of particleboard. Art students from area high schools, NCCC, and Niagara University and others could be invited to design and paint. Perhaps the Niagara Council of the Arts could be involved. The murals could still be in the process of being created as visitors toured.
If tours made stops every half hour for ten hours during the height of the season--and this is a modest example--each people mover carrying 50 people, that's 1,000 people a day. That doesn't seem unrealistic when the low-ball estimate of visitors to Niagara is 7 million annually. If each person spent $20.00 (again, T-shirt and fast food meal = $20.00) that's $140,000 a week. If you think the numbers are too low, double either one to hit $280,000.
We use Main Street as an example. But we imagine such tours extending to include routes throughout the city. We have a lot of stories to tell: the story of power generation, aerospace, bridge building, Underground Railroad, an incredible history of ethnic contribution to the richness of our past. Pine Avenue could participate with "Little Italy" tours, Highland Avenue with the proposed "Little Harlem at the Falls" revitalization with boutiques, restaurants, replication of village safe houses where runaway slaves stayed, a theater, storytellers, flag-lined streets, and other attractions, Niagara Street with its planned International Boulevard and Square, restaurants serving Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai menus, industrial tours down Buffalo Avenue to LaSalle, as suggested by Paul Gromosiak, perhaps, to a small museum with its replica of the Griffon, the craft that heralded in the age of shipping on the Great Lakes.
The Niagara Heritage Partnership does not imagine that city tours can be established without enormous hard work, without rethinking and reforming some of the basic structures which accommodate millions of the visitors annually. We hear, for example, much about the typical, almost mythical, four-hour stay of the average tourist. Yet, some bus tours seem designed to minimize the time customers spend in the area. This is good business from their point of view: So much time on Goat Island, a quick-pace to the railing for a photograph at Prospect Point, then off to Factory Outlet. The Goat Island viewmobile ride can be over in about thirty minutes if visitors merely ride and look. Do I exaggerate? Not by much.
There may always be those who want to vacation in this fashion, but perhaps some of them could be convinced to return to spend more time in a leisurely manner. It might be those few notes of blues music they hear on their way to their ten minutes of allotted time at Whirlpool, the glimpse of seagulls soaring on the updrafts over the gorge, or a glossy brochure telling them about historical church tours through city streets, the complimentary six-dollar ticket for two days worth of unlimited riding on the trackless trolley, the "Ride into History" train. And a two-day ticket should be the only one sold, incidentally--unless it's four days for ten dollars.
Within the ecotourism population are two groups of special significance--hikers and bicyclists. There are over 175 bicycling organizations in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Province of Ontario. Hikers number over 20,000 in just one New York organization, the Adirondack Mountain Club. The New York - New Jersey Trail Conference has over 50,000 members. Hiking is so well established that in 1993 National Trail Day was established by the American Hiking Society in recognition of the popular activity, to be celebrated locally on June 10th at the Orin Lehman Center at Prospect Point. The American Hiking Society promotes public awareness and appreciation for trails and partnerships between trail groups and business interests.
Surveys reveal that cyclists traveling in groups spend $50.00 a day for lodging, $60.00 each a day when cycling alone (1988). Could Main Street offer a hostel, small-room lodging, for hikers, bicyclists, and other visitors? These groups should be, if the Niagara Heritage Partnership proposal becomes reality, contacted personally, months before the trails are completed, so they will be able to do advance planning for road trips, rallies, races, hiking meets, and conferences.
A trail within the gorge should soon be completed by State Parks, so the region will be able to offer hiking trails of varying demand levels, suitable for all ages and degrees of physical preparedness. These groups, or their individual members, treated hospitably, and finding an area of remarkable, varying natural landscapes, such as we would have to offer with the parkway gone and restoration underway, would tend to repeatedly spend time at Niagara.
Two final comments remain. The Niagara Heritage Partnership believes that full benefit will come to the Main Street and other business communities only as a result of full parkway removal, all lanes, all the way. Anything less will lead to the eventual gorgetop tours, people movers along the length, combined with the retention of everyday traffic lanes. Potential for riders on city tours will be drastically reduced. The gorge will be further degraded.
Ecotourists, especially those committed to at least the illusion of a wilderness experience, will not be particularly impressed. Can you imagine significant numbers of hikers or bicycle riders traveling here to be subjected to the sight and sound of motor vehicles passing them during their outdoor ventures? They could hike or bicycle along any road to experience that.
If the parkway is removed, with trails running through restored natural landscapes, the project will most certainly attract widespread media attention, in print and film, in an impressive array of publications and venues. This extensive coverage should be encouraged and facilitated, but not relied upon as sufficient. The accomplishment also needs to be well-publicized with a savvy, high concept, glossy, Madison Avenue media campaign announcing to the world what has been achieved here. There can be no shortcuts, no cost-cutting, no halfway measures. If it costs a million, it costs a million. The money must be found somewhere. A three-paragraph notation in a pamphlet with the photograph of the American Falls on the cover, negative reversed so that the Bridal Veil Falls is depicted on the north side, will not be good enough.
Bob Baxter, Founding member - Niagara Heritage Partnership