Waterfront development in Erie and Niagara counties is a puzzle that seems so daunting.
Can it be possible for 13 municipalities on the American side of the Niagara River to make meaningful change?
A plan is now in place for a 34-mile greenway that could one day link Lake Ontario to Lake Erie with trails, recreation areas and cultural centers.
But can it succeed when it comes to the often competing interests of environmentalists, preservationists, sports and recreation lovers, business owners and politicians?
If the Hudson River Valley Greenway is a model, it can.
The Hudson greenway is flourishing, its executive director said, because it uses a process that balances open-space protection with development. Its members make sure projects support greenway guidelines and they work together, understanding that what's good for the Hudson River region is good for them, too.
"It's taken a considerable amount of the 16 years for communities to start talking to one another," Executive Director Mary Mangione said, "but once that ball started rolling we've seen fruitful relationships between towns and regions."
The Hudson River Valley Greenway's $204,000 appropriation in the annual state budget helps pay for a small staff of planners and other professionals who have energized municipalities to create 237 miles of riverside trails, nearly 50 miles of connector trails and a 147-mile bike route.
The Niagara River Greenway, which has one paid staff member, has a plan that has been approved by 13 waterfront communities and a dedicated funding stream of $450 million over the next 50 years -- $145 million if adjusted for inflation. That money will come from the New York Power Authority as part of its federal approval for a new license to keep operating the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.
Robert J. Kresse, chairman of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, said he doesn't want the fact that there will be millions of dollars in dedicated greenway money to "get in the way of good planning and serious thought."
As the money starts flowing, he said, it will be important to first identify the greatest needs.
The greenway money will be split among four standing committees -- still being formed -- in Erie and Niagara counties beginning in October or November:
*An ecological committee will receive an annual $1 million. It will include representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the Tuscarora, Seneca and Tonawanda Seneca Indian nations; and a Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper official who also will represent a coalition of other environmental groups.
*The Erie County committee will receive $2 million per year and include representation from the county, City of Buffalo and Olmsted Conservancy.
*A state parks committee will receive an annual $3 million, spending the money in both counties.
*The host communities committee will receive an annual $3 million and include a representative from each member of the Niagara Power Coalition, which consists of Niagara County, the Towns of Niagara and Lewiston, the City of Niagara Falls, and the Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls City school districts.
It's still unclear how the Power Authority will pay out the greenway money.
In Niagara County, the seven members of the Niagara Power Coalition have decided to split the money in their settlement agreement, ranging from $510,000 a year for Lewiston and Niagara Falls down to $360,000 for the Niagara-Wheatfield School District.
Each standing committee is required to consult with the state-appointed Greenway Commission before money is spent and has the responsibility of ensuring each project is consistent with the Niagara River Greenway Plan.
Dozens of ideas have been proposed, from a complete overhaul of an urban waterfront park in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood to an interpretive program in state parks that would raise awareness of Indian culture and history.
Lynda Schneekloth, president of the Riverkeeper, said she would like to see the ecological committee use its funding as seed money to gain larger grants or to partner with a project that may not have an ecological component so it could add one -- for example, a project to build a new fishing dock could include fish habitat improvement.
Deputy Erie County Executive Bruce Fisher said the Niagara River Parkway in Canada is a perfect example of what could be created.
A new greenway combined with the area's already popular Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks, he said, could finally bring those opportunities to this side of the border.
"The opportunity to think about connecting our [existing parks] to the greenway is finally before us in a way we can move on," he said. "We don't have to theorize anymore. We can think about actual connections."
Mangione, who has worked on the Hudson River Valley Greenway for seven years, said she believes the Buffalo Niagara region can experience similar success.
"People are skeptical at first because they cannot imagine the river being any different than they have seen," she told The Buffalo News. "But with time and effort and a focus to revitalize, it actually does happen."
Where the money flows
During the next 50 years, the New York Power Authority will allocate $9 million a year in Niagara River Greenway money to be channeled through four standing committees:
Host Community ? $3 million will be split between seven Niagara County municipalities and school districts.
State Parks ? $3 million for improvements in Niagara and Erie counties.
Niagara River Ecological ? $1 million for river and habitat improvement projects to be decided by state and federal agencies, local environmental organizations and three Indian nations.
Erie County ? $2 million on projects chosen by the City of Buffalo, Erie County and the Olmsted Conservancy.