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Heritage Area goals all-embracing
327-page document cites wide-ranging vision to capitalize on cultural, natural assets

Every public and private organization within sight of the Niagara Gorge or of the cataracts at Niagara Falls -- and even beyond -- can have a role in developing the ambitious goals of the National Heritage Area Commission, according to documents issued this month.

The 17-member Heritage Area Commission plans to rely heavily on the planned Niagara Experience Center, local schools and libraries and all manner of cultural and commercial stakeholders to provide special reasons for people to visit the Niagara Frontier and to preserve the region's cultural and natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

That's a tall order, and the commission has issued a 327-page draft of a management plan and environmental assessment that encourages "public and private partners to join hands to foster tourism, education and programming that highlight important events and sites related to American history and culture."

"The Heritage Area can help to enhance each visitor's experience in ways that will support revitalization programs in the City of Niagara Falls and strengthen businesses in the river communities [of Lewiston and Youngstown] to the north," according to an information sheet distributed by project director Sara Capen.

"The commission will connect with related historic sites throughout Niagara and Erie counties and collaborate with organizations and sites in Canada," she said. "It will promote greater use of the region's resources for education, vacation experiences and recreation."

Copies of the draft management plan and environmental assessment are available for public viewing at libraries in Niagara Falls, Lewiston and Youngstown, and can be read online under the park planning section at www.nps.gov/nifa.

Public comments on the draft documents may be sent by May 1 to Thomas A. Chambers, chairman of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission, Timon Hall 119, P.O. Box 932, Niagara University, NY 14109.

The documents describe general goals but few specifics. Congress can appropriate up to $1 million a year for the Heritage Area Commission for up to 15 years for planning purposes, but no funds have been allocated for construction or implementation of the goals.

"It could be 10 or 15 years before our goals are met," Chambers said.

The establishment of a long-dreamed-of Niagara Experience Center would play a key role in the heritage plan.

"The Heritage Area should create a network of facilities introducing visitors to Heritage Area themes and stories and orienting them toward interpretive opportunities in the area's landscapes and communities," according to the plan.

"The premier interpretive facility for the Heritage Area should be the planned Niagara Experience Center, a world-class regional attraction to be located adjacent to Niagara Falls State Park."

The Experience Center is being undertaken by an independent nonprofit group.

"It will feature the latest in immersive 'experience design' and yet be grounded in scholarship and authenticity. It is planned to include a scholarly research center and archive. It will serve as the gateway to other interpretive opportunities, encouraging visitors to explore the river corridor and experience the authentic landscapes it interprets," according to the plan.

"It will be the focal point of a re-envisioned downtown. It is a long-term project that will require significant fundraising and community support. For the medium term, the Heritage Area should consider developing an interim central Interpretive Center in the vicinity of Old Falls Street and Rainbow Boulevard."

Possible locations include the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp.'s downtown visitors center.

Edward J. Friel, chairman and board president of the Experience Center, said he is "very excited by the scale of opportunity" presented by cooperation between his program and the National Heritage Area Commission. Friel is on the faculty at Niagara University specializing in economic regeneration and tourism.

"We want to collaborate with others to transform Niagara Falls into a major international destination and the main point of entry into the Northeastern United States," he said. "This is not just about a building; it's creating an experience and maximizing the economic benefit of tourism.

"It will create jobs and bridges of opportunity to improve the quality of life locally and tell the distinctive story of our history, heritage and culture."

Friel said he would not put a price tag or a completion date on the Experience Center, but he said a consultant is evaluating those factors now.

"The Niagara Falls Public Library's Local History Department [already] features an extensive collection of books, photographs, maps, newspapers, videotapes, scrapbooks and clipping files about Niagara Falls," the Heritage Area Commission said. "Despite the extent and significance of its collection, the Local History Department is underfunded and open only six hours a week. Local historians note that much of the material is not inventoried or sorted."

The draft management plan says the commission should collaborate with the library in making it a central archive and repository for regional historical information and collections.

Jillian Onesi, administrative assistant to Library Director Michelle Petrazzoulo, said the Local History Department already has extended its schedule to nine hours a week and has hired consultant William Siener to inventory the collection.

Onesi said a librarian and a clerk are assigned to staff the Local History Department from 5 to 8 p.m. on Mondays and from 2 to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"We would love to have more hours, more staff and more money," she said.

The library should continue to be the central archive and repository for local history and collections, the panel said. "A needs assessment should be undertaken to determine how best to support the library and its staff and to inventory, care for its collection and make it more widely available," the commission said. "A regular funding stream should be established for its implementation."

Schools will play an equally important role in the plan.

"This is not your grandmother's curriculum," according to the management plan. "Heritage Area partners can help schools meet state standards in such areas as the ability to gain and act on critical information and instructions, literacy in social studies, separating fact from fiction, and viewing the world through multiple perspectives and the ideas of different cultures.

"Teachers will be using up-to-the-minute technologies such as interactive whiteboards that will permit 'virtual field trips' and a much-enriched classroom experience."

The "action" portion of this plan includes establishing a "heritage civics" program about local government, the state parks, tourism, outdoor recreation and the Heritage Area, as well as a scholastic honors program that encourages high school students to undertake projects in research, interpretation, conservation, the arts and other subjects.

Many residents' concept of local history begins with the arrival of European explorers on the Niagara Frontier, but the commission's environmental assessment includes a section beginning with "the indigenous people that have lived in the vicinity of the lower Niagara River since the retreat of glacial ice, rise of the Great Lakes and growth of deciduous forests along the Niagara Escarpment."

This early history is cited as having national significance. The commission said isolated artifact finds suggest an earlier presence, but the oldest well-documented archaeological sites in the region date from the Late Archaic Period (5,000 B.C. to 3,000 B.C.). Archaeologists say the region was settled continuously through the Woodland Period (3,000 B.C. to A.D. 1650) and up to the time of European contact.

An expedition led by Rene-Robert Cavelier de la Salle is credited with the first documented account of the cataracts at Niagara Falls during a visit in 1678, but the commission said that "it seems likely that other Europeans would have made earlier visits to Niagara Falls."

The Heritage Area is a program of the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The final interpretive plan will be coordinated with governments at all levels, the Niagara River Greenway Commission, economic-development agencies, schools and colleges, the New York Power Authority, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, Canadian interests, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and every identifiable stakeholder.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com