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Power plant site eyed for Maid of Mist storage

Maid of the Mist officials intend to keep their American tour boat operation afloat by building a storage facility on the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant near the falls.

But state officials, pointing to red tape, environmental hurdles and timing, have not warmed to the idea.

The plan, company officials said Thursday, is to build steel carriages to store boats during the icy winter months. For more than a century, the company has depended on Canadian storage land it will lose in 2014, and officials hope the plan will help the company survive without Canadian tours.

"We're going to not stop, we're going to keep going until we resolve this issue," Christopher M. Glynn, president of Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co., said at a Thursday news conference. "It is our intent to operate for a long period of time."

State Parks officials said they were surprised by the plan, noting the company had not submitted a formal proposal to develop the mostly vacant Schoellkopf land, which still holds some remains of the power plant.

"We would certainly listen to anything they had to say," said Peter Brancato, a state parks spokesman. "Whether it's feasible to do it or not and assure that they would get it, I don't know."

A number of geological, environmental and engineering studies would need to be done at the Schoellkopf site prior to any construction, Brancato said, stressing that the last structure there -- the power plant -- collapsed into the Niagara Gorge in 1956.

Those studies could take up to two years, Brancato said. Glynn had hoped a storage facility could be built by the end of 2013, when the company loses control of its current docking facility in Canada.

If the company does not find a solution by then to continue its American service, State Parks officials have said, the entire American boat-tour operation would be opened for public bidding. That process, some have noted, could net a large payout for the state.

A project to build storage carriages also would need to be put out for public bidding, Brancato said, meaning that another company -- such as Hornblower Cruises, which will run the Canadian tours -- conceivably could win the bid and prevent the Maid from continuing its service.

"There's no guarantee that the Maid would get it," Brancato said. "We have a long history with Maid of the Mist, but at the same time, our main goal is to make sure we have continuous service, whether it's Maid of the Mist or Hornblower."

The Ontario government, when it selected Hornblower Cruises of San Francisco to run boat cruises on the Canadian shore starting in 2014, struck a deal that was more than $300 million more profitable than its agreement with the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co.

Glynn on Thursday referred to increased revenues New York State might collect from his idea. He also said his plan was the best shot to ensure American boat-tour operations were no longer dependent on Canadian land.

"We didn't say it was going to be easy, but if [officials] in New York want independence from Canada and a long-term solution that can afford the revenues they've been reading about, then that's the long-term solution," Glynn said.

He said the company has hired engineers who have verified the feasibility of the site. The site could protect the boats from winter ice that rises more than 10 feet.

The Schoellkopf plan would allow the company to store the boats along the gorge and lower them on a steel track into the water. The company also has other site options, Glynn said, which he declined to disclose. Building a facility downstream from the Whirlpool Rapids is not feasible, he said.

Glynn said he has received no guarantee from State Parks officials that the plan would be accepted but said state and federal officials have given the company encouragement. State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston -- who met previously with senior parks officials about the boat tours -- were not ready to commit to the Schoellkopf plan but said they hope tours will continue on the American side.

In his first extensive public comments since his company lost the lucrative Canadian tours, Glynn said he wasn't sure why Canada chose Hornblower Cruises.

"We were obviously very disappointed," he said. "I don't know what else to say beyond that. We feel that we gave them a good proposal and that's the way things go."

Glynn added that there is no discussion between the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower about leasing the Canadian storage land. Hornblower's chief executive has said he believes only one boat-tour company should operate around the falls and that the Maid of the Mist should exit.

But as Glynn's company kicked off its 127th consecutive season of Maid of the Mist tours, he made it clear his family, which has owned the tours since 1971, isn't giving up on its business.

"We intend to perform," he said. "We intend to be here for a very long time."