NIAGARA FALLS – A state police union is weighing in on the dispute over a proposed State Park Police barracks on the rim of the Niagara Gorge.
The Police Benevolent Association of New York State wants construction of the barracks to resume, it said in a written statement released Thursday.
Building the police station at the disputed location, behind the Howard Johnson hotel on Main Street, would enhance public safety, the union said, by putting the station in a place where visitors could more easily access it. Park Police officers would also be closer to the majority of park visitors, the union said.
The union, which represents 27 Park Police officers, sergeants and lieutenants who work in the Falls, also described the proposed site, which was the area of a former exit of the Robert Moses Parkway, as “underutilized.”
“This section is overgrown and ill-maintained with no future development plans,” union President Manuel Vilar, who works on Long Island, said in a statement. “The new station at this location would not block gorge or waterfront access, would help improve response times, enhance the property and increase police visibility to assist park visitors.”
The city’s Tourism Advisory Board has criticized the state for choosing that site, noting the state only in the last few years agreed to remove a section of the Robert Moses Parkway from along the gorge. And that came only after decades of public outcry.
The parcel was cleared during site preparation before construction was temporarily halted in mid-June following a rising tide of public criticism.
The Park Police’s existing station is on Goat Island, but the state wants to expand facilities for the Cave of the Winds into space currently used by police. The city had previously suggested a number of other sites to the state as alternative locations.
Being closer to park visitors would mean quicker response times in emergency situations with people in the gorge or near the brink of the falls, said John Mikula, associate director of Park Police sergeants for the union, which represents forest rangers, parks police, university police and environmental conservation officers.
The new station would be up to 7,000 square feet, an increase from the current 3,800 square feet of space, Mikula said. As an example of the existing station’s cramped conditions he described, Mikula said the break room only fits three people comfortably.
State parks officials have previously said the new station would be about three times the size of the existing barracks.
In addition to police services, other services available at the present station include free wheelchair rental, basic first aid and as a repository for lost and found property, Mikula said.
The new station would also include public restrooms.
Since the Tourism Advisory Board leaders spoke out, two state lawmakers, Rep. Brian Higgins and the Niagara Falls City Council have called for a new location to be found.
Reached for comment Thursday, Tourism Advisory Board Chairwoman Lisa A. Vitello reiterated her belief that the site is a prime location for a tourism-related amenity, not a police station.
“There’s not one person that we have come across, other than police themselves, that thinks this is a good idea,” she said.
Shawn J. Weber, the board’s vice chairman, said the union’s comments sounded like talking points previously expressed by state parks officials.
Both Vitello and Weber said there’s an easy solution available, pointing to one of the alternative sites for the station located just across the parkway. It’s a site owned by the New York Power Authority and slated to be transferred to the city under terms of the federal relicensing of the Niagara Power Project.
State parks officials, who have yet to disclose the project’s cost, previously said that when they inquired about the site, just north of DeFranco Park at Main and Whirlpool streets, they were told it was not available.