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‘Niagara Falls, naturally’ could be marketing phrase for U.S. side

This is Niagara Falls’ big chance to go green.

Not green in the Totes McGoats recycling way, but in remaking Niagara Falls into the tourism attraction it really should be.

Step No. 1 already is underway with the removal of a stretch of the Robert Moses Parkway upstream from the falls. Step No. 2 likely will come in early 2018, when work begins to remove a two-mile stretch of the little used parkway downstream from the falls.

Step 3 – and this is the biggest step of all – will be to build on the opportunity that will come from ripping out a concrete and asphalt barrier that separated much of the city from the Niagara River rapids and the gorge downstream.

State officials, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, hailed the removal of the parkway near the falls as, literally, a groundbreaking move that will open up green space from the rapids through the gorge.

Their initial plans are encouragingly green, too. The state wants to add scenic overlooks along the gorge and create recreational trails in the newly restored strip of land. There’s even talk of horseback riding, carriage rides and ziplining, rock climbing and rappelling.

“It’s going to change the whole ambiance,” Cuomo said in announcing the state’s $42 million investment to rip out the highway that was one of three big mistakes (along with the Rainbow Centre Mall complex and the Occidental Chemical Corp. office building) that allowed development to creep far to close to one of nature’s natural wonders.

That new ambiance is Niagara Falls’ big opportunity.

The Canadian side of the falls has its ribbon of green, too. But it’s also the undisputed champion of tourist schlock, from wax museums and the Skylon Tower to high-rise hotels and casinos that tower over that narrow strip of green.

The New York side can’t compete with that. And it shouldn’t want to.

Removing part of the parkway will open up about 300 acres of green space along the Niagara Gorge. Embrace it. Emphasize the new opportunities for people to ride their bikes there, hike along the gorge or even cross-country ski on the new trails.

Market the American side around it.

A slogan like “Niagara Falls, naturally” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

The old way of thinking in Niagara Falls wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that. But that way of thinking got us the Rainbow Centre. It had us chasing our tails for the Ghermezian Brothers’ mega-factory outlet mall. It got us ugly water parks and summertime ski ramps.

Along the way, the more than 8 million people who came to the American side of the Falls each year spent about four hours and left, in many cases for Canada, because they do tourism schlock better than we do.

So let’s stop trying. Let the Canadian side corner the tourist trap market. Let the American side embrace the green market.

“We want to emphasize the natural wonder in a natural setting,” said Sam Hoyt, Empire State Development’s regional president in Buffalo. “We’re not interested in replicating the wax museum model.”

If you doubt the power of going green, just look at Canalside. The old way of thinking said we needed Bass Pro to revitalize the Buffalo waterfront.

In reality, it took some summer concerts, bike paths, kayak rentals, an outdoor ice rink, pedestrian walkways and a renewed appreciation for the history of the terminus of the Erie Canal to turn Canalside into a happening place.

It’s even teaching a new generation of Western New Yorkers how to find the Outer Harbor for biking, walking, jogging and wind surfing.

Green, as Gordon Gekko might say, is good.

But green won’t sell itself. The American side still needs to do a much better job to guide and nurture its tourists.

That starts by simply letting them know what you can do here.

How many tourists come to the American side and don’t even know you can see the Canadian falls from Terrapin Point?

How many don’t find the Bridal Veil Falls overlook or miss out on the Cave of the Winds because they can’t find it?

How many miss the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, tucked on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge?

How many never get past the border crossing bottleneck to explore the Niagara Gorge, see the whirlpool or try the hiking trails along the base of the gorge because no one tells them they’re there?

The signs directing tourists within the park are minimal, and even more important, the park lacks the prominent central meeting place that you find in most other major attractions. The park has a small visitors center, but it’s hard to find and is so obscure that it’s not an obvious first stop for someone arriving at the state park.

That’s why a first-rate visitors center, in a location where it can act as a gateway between the city and the park, is so important for the American side.

Include a must-see museum in it that touches on the Falls’ fascinating mix of geography, history and industry. It’s a natural for interactive displays showing how the falls were formed, how it shaped travel and commerce, and how it spawned a cadre of daredevils.

Imagine a Disney-like attraction, built around the motion simulators that East Aurora’s Moog Inc. makes, that would give tourists a sense of what it would feel like to bob and bang their way down the rapids and over the falls. Give the Legends of Adventure movie, now relegated to the basement of the hard-to-find visitors center, a more prominent home.

A so-called Niagara Experience Center, long on the wish list of local business leaders, has never gained the political and financial support it needs. But it would be a wise investment.

To be sure, the state already is making strides to spruce up the park, spending $64 million on improvements – some already completed – at Prospect Point, Three Sisters Islands and Terrapin Point.

Plans also are in the works to replace the pedestrian bridges across the Niagara River, which have deteriorated to the point where obtrusive steel trusses had to be installed 12 years ago. That replacement will require the water to be temporarily turned off to the American Falls for a year or two, depending on the construction plan. That will be a big tourist draw by its own rights.

For too long, the state neglected the Niagara Falls park. But not anymore.

All of the ongoing – and planned – work will help bring the park up to snuff. Even more encouraging, the work puts an emphasis on emphasizing the natural surroundings, making the American side a better place to experience the Falls in a more natural setting.

“We have what no other community has, but for a long time, we lost it,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said.

Removing part of the Robert Moses Parkway helps reclaim that.

But it doesn’t solve everything.

There’s still a lot of room for even more improvement.