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State parks officials reverse stance, will allow digital sign at Falls cafe

In the face of pressure from state legislators and the City Council, state parks officials have reversed course to allow a digital sign outside the Hard Rock Cafe.

The sign, mounted below the logo of the Prospect Street restaurant, had become a cause celebre for local and state lawmakers who have criticized the state park for its parking policies.

Mark W. Thomas, regional director for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who earlier said the sign was "not consistent with the historic and aesthetic character of our park," gave no explanation for the reversal.

However, Council Chairman Sam Fruscione on Thursday credited his public criticism and the support of Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.

The city had approved the sign, but the Hard Rock needed the state's approval because the restaurant lies within 500 feet of Niagara Falls State Park.

Thomas had originally ordered a Hard Rock contractor to remove the sign by March 1, but Fruscione and Ceretto argued that parks officials had no right to regulate city businesses outside its boundaries.

Seeking to prevent a similar disagreement in the future, Ceretto and Maziarz have introduced bills pending in the State Legislature that would take the parks agency out of the approval process for signs outside its boundaries.

The legislators have been previous critics of the parks agency.

In November, Fruscione requested that Thomas appear before the Council to explain the state's "embarrassing" lack of upkeep of the Niagara Gorge Rim, construction on the Robert Moses Parkway and a parkway exit in Lewiston that was controversial among city residents.

Thursday, he took aim at general state parks policy and the idea that the state park remains a shining natural wonder.

"It's an impediment to progress in the city," Fruscione said. "When I was a kid, it was mostly park. Since then, it has become a parking lot and it's fallen into disrepair."

After the park was criticized by a travel writer and nonprofit group last year as becoming "shabby" and falling into disrepair, Maziarz and Ceretto, a former state parks employee, pushed parks officials in Albany to make repairs.

Maziarz has also sought to ensure that parking fees collected at the popular tourism destination are used locally to upgrade the park.

State parks officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the criticism but this week announced the state would commit $25 million to improvements at the park.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster has previously said the state, along with the city, should have some form of jurisdiction over the property bordering Niagara Falls State Park.

"None of us wants to see the edges of our state park lined with billboards," he said. "I think what we're looking at is a question of whether you can strike a balance."

The park bills sponsored by Ceretto and Maziarz are expected to come up for a vote later in the session, an Assembly aide said.