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Rethink waterfront; Failure of the NFTA's property sale is an opportunity for new discussions

It's time for all interested parties in the effort to remove the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's control to sit down together and come to an agreement on the best way forward.

The NFTA desperately needs to get out of the real estate business so it can focus on its core mission of moving people. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the property, the agency has to move in a different direction.

The public has a stake in the future of the property because it is a popular gathering spot. Whoever gets the land must ensure continued public access.

The need for a summit became apparent when the presumed buyer for the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach said his deal with the NFTA is off because of new demands regarding environmental cleanup of the waterfront property the authority has owned for decades.

The authority said there are no new demands and it doesn't have any idea what David Pfeiffer of the Bear Development group is talking about. Meanwhile, Rob Smith of Smith Boys Inc., which presented a proposal that lost out to Bear Development, is waiting in the wings for another shot at the property.

Welcome to the NFTA's outer harbor merry-go-round: the authority wants to rid itself of property it no longer wants and is draining scarce resources, but can't find a suitable deal.

In recent years, the authority has tried selling the property to the state, then to a private developer, then to a public entity and finally to Bear Development. All ended in failure.

And now there are calls for the authority to reassess plans for selling its outer harbor lands to private developers. New leaders of the NFTA and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. have said they would welcome discussions. Those discussions should include members of the public, representatives of city, county, state and federal governments and anyone else with ideas for this important piece of lakefront property.

Creating a plan of action won't be easy -- it never is around here. But at least nearly everyone agrees that the NFTA needs to divest itself of the property. A new owner will be taking on a huge commitment. The Small Boat Harbor needs millions of dollars in repairs, and the environmental problems must be resolved. There are also union issues to consider -- the current workers are public employees -- along with the transfer of leases and liabilities.

If the land remains in public hands, money will be an issue. While the land seems to fit in the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.'s portfolio, ECHD would have to find operating capital and money for improvements.

The state parks system, which at one time had an interest in the property, also has budget issues. But with a governor who is committed to helping Western New York -- shown by his pledge of $1 billion in incentives -- and improving the parks system, interest could be rekindled.

A new plan for private development could still emerge, or some sort of public-private partnership could be proposed.

The important thing is to start the discussions now and find the right way forward. The system of having a government agency impose a solution (see Bass Pro) doesn't work here. The public needs to be involved.

Let's hope the episode with Bear Development and the Small Boat Harbor is the last snag on the road to transferring the land from the NFTA. It's too important a piece of the waterfront to be allowed to languish.