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A dollar and a dream; Rep. Brian Higgins wants the NFTA to transfer its outer harbor property to a state waterfront agency by October to bring about 'real public access now'

Rep. Brian Higgins is calling on the NFTA to transfer the land it controls on the outer harbor for $1 to a state waterfront agency by October.

The congressman then wants the state agency, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., to invest $11.5 million in improvements for the nearly 400 acres and direct revenue from the Small Boat Harbor to future outer harbor improvements.

Higgins' letter to acting NFTA Chairman Henry M. Sloma carries special weight because Higgins has been the primary mover on waterfront development. His proposal also cuts out City Hall, which recently expressed interest in developing the outer harbor.

"The NFTA has held the property for 58 years, with no measurable, tangible progress," Higgins said. "This provides a singular focus to a state agency that has waterfront development and public access as its core mission. And, because of the 2005 [New York Power Authority] settlement, we have resources to turn that vision into something real."

Higgins said he has discussed the proposal with Erie Canal Harbor and NFTA officials.

"There is broad consensus that this is the direction to move in. There is virtually no one I've talked to in Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. or the NFTA that [has] expressed any objections," Higgins said.

Sloma declined to endorse the proposal, but he said the waterfront agency seemed to be the "logical" choice to develop the outer harbor. He also reiterated that the NFTA wanted to transfer the property and said he was glad momentum was headed that way.

"The good thing in all of this is we are moving in the right direction. We want to be able to convey this valuable public asset to a responsible agency to continue with its development," Sloma said.

The waterfront agency, a subsidiary of Empire State Development that was formed in 2005, has received praise over the past couple of years for its work at Canalside. The agency has also had a focus on the outer harbor, where it owns 21 acres, including the former Cargill and New York Power Authority sites.

Sam Hoyt, the waterfront agency's interim director, said he is open to Higgins' proposal.

"My recommendation to the board will be that it's important for us to be a part of this discussion, and be open-minded to the possibility of expanding the footprint of the waterfront property we own. It makes sense," Hoyt said. "That said, there are a lot of hurdles that need to be crossed before any action could occur."

Hoyt also said the City of Buffalo must be involved.

"I will be insistent that the City of Buffalo is a partner and a party to any discussion about the disposition of the NFTA property," Hoyt said.

Higgins' call came one day after Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns filed legislation in the Assembly that calls for an 11-member task force to study the outer harbor while barring property from being transferred until the release of a final report in January 2013.

Kearns said his proposal -- which has yet to find a Senate co-sponsor -- will create a task force to study waterfront governance issues. He said he wants to protect the interests of the City of Buffalo, which is investigating regaining ownership of outer harbor lands it controlled many decades ago.

But the assemblyman said a broader goal is to ensure that the public has input into any future plan. "I'm not looking to stop progress. But Bass Pro was the plan of ECHDC, and when the public got involved, it said, 'We don't want a big-box store here,' " Kearns said. "There still has to be a public component, and this gives the public the chance."

Kearns' bill would create an 11-member task force, including the city, NFTA, the waterfront agency and a representative of the public.

He said a plan that stems from all stakeholders will represent the entire community.

"We don't need many visions; we need one vision," Kearns said. "We want to bring everyone to the table so we have one document after six months."

The assemblyman said several more months of delay will not matter in a process that has already taken decades. "Even if the NFTA wants to transfer the land, it can't happen in a day," he said. "It's OK to get things done; we just need to get the right things done."

But Higgins strongly rejected Kearns' proposal to set up the task force.

"The last thing this community needs is another waterfront committee. We've had 60 years of committees and plans. We need action, and we need real public access now," Higgins said.

Higgins proposal also calls for the waterfront agency to spend $11.5 million on harbor priority infrastructure projects: breakwater rehabilitation ($4 million); dredging ($3 million); restaurant expansion ($2 million); cleanup and lawn cover at 120-acre Outer Harbor Park, at Lakeside Meadows Greenfield ($2 million); and development of a sand beach at Gallagher Beach ($500,000).

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a supporter of Higgins' plan, said some might be wary of committing the outer harbor to a state agency, given what he said was Western New York's poor past history with state authorities. He also noted the waterfront agency's longtime commitment to what became an unpopular and divisive pursuit of Bass Pro Shops.

But Ryan said the agency had done "a lot of good things in the last couple of years," and the public would expect it to follow an inclusive process on decisions about the outer harbor.

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