New York State has decided not to allow the construction of a lodge on Goat Island or anywhere else within Niagara Falls State Park.
A request for proposals, issued Friday morning by Empire State Development, says that public opposition caused it to rule out any lodge within the main state park at the falls.
"We never wanted the distraction of this lodge element to be the focus of the much more important opportunity that exists with hopefully dramatically expanding outdoor recreation activities in the Falls," said Sam Hoyt, regional director of Empire State Development. "The reason for pulling the Goat Island-Niagara Falls State Park element was, there was lots of feedback. It did become a distraction."
However, the RFP suggests a 1.3-acre parking lot in Whirlpool State Park, near the restrooms, as a potential location for lodging. Also suggested as a possible lodge is Schoellkopf Hall, a former dormitory in DeVeaux Woods State Park in northern Niagara Falls, which is available for reuse.
But the RFP says bidders may suggest any other site adjacent to a state park or New York Power Authority property – if the bidder "has full site control and can document that the proposed location can demonstrably contribute to or support outdoor recreation activities in the project area."
The state agency is interested in hiring a private operator to provide improved recreation opportunities near Niagara Falls, ranging from rappelling and zip line facilities in the Niagara Gorge to rental of bicycles and outdoor gear. Seasonal camping and cabin facilities are another possibility.
"We hope that it will all be private investment. Time will tell, depending on the responses we get. We certainly believe that there's money for the private sector to make in these opportunities we've highlighted," Hoyt said.
The deadline for bids is 2 p.m. Sept. 15.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had proposed a lodge, along with the expansion of recreational activities in the state parks around Niagara Falls, in a regional State of the State address in January.
"The (Cuomo) administration has shown itself very responsive to public opinion," Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. "Such a wild area in a city is unique, and I would hope we would have some really strong interest."
"I am delighted to hear that the proposed Goat Island lodge idea has been eliminated, as it would have privatized a section of the island or reserved it for the use of a few," said Lynda Schneekloth, chairwoman of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. "Instead, this section of Goat Island is in serious need of attention and enhancement. It could provide more opportunities for viewing the river and rapids if vegetated and enhanced to the quality of effort at Three Sisters Island."
"While it's good news that a lodge has been ruled out for Goat Island, it comes as bad news that the Olmsted philosophy for Niagara will be violated at other park locations," said E.R. "Bob" Baxter III, one of the founders of the Niagara Heritage Partnership. "A lodge at DeVeaux Woods State Park would, for example, invite guests to tramp through the old growth forest there the year-around. ... A lodge for the parking lot at Whirlpool State Park, a stone's throw from DeVeaux, is equally preposterous."
“By partnering with an established operator to provide a program of outdoor recreation activities and associated facilities, we are taking a major step forward in advancing Gov. Cuomo’s plan to capture Niagara Falls’ tourism opportunities,” said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development, the Falls-based Empire State Development subsidiary.
“While Niagara Falls attracts more visitors than most national parks, a smaller percentage of our attendance involves overnight stays," Schoepflin said. "This RFP is seeking a major private investment to help better facilitate and promote hiking, biking, climbing, fishing - and a host of other activities along the Upper and Lower Niagara River - all intended to not only increase 'stay and spend' and realize its associated economic benefits but also give the visitor the most authentic experience at Niagara.”
The 64-page RFP lays out a vision of a "green necklace" along the 11-mile riverfront both above and below the falls, and asks bidders to consider improved recreational opportunities in four separate areas.
Those are the upper river; Niagara Falls State Park; the gorge from the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center to Findlay Drive; and the three state parks in northern Niagara Falls - Whirlpool, DeVeaux Woods and Devil's Hole.
"Ideally, we want to achieve a natural, accessible and ecologically sustainable waterfront corridor - extending south along the Niagara Gorge from Devil's Hole State Park south to Niagara Falls State Park and continuing east along the Upper Niagara River to the Grand Island Bridges - dotted with sensitively implemented 'activity nodes' involving outdoor recreation, or to facilitate outdoor recreation," the document says.
The lodge could double as one of those nodes, offering equipment rental or the chance to book a guided fishing tour, the RFP says.
"The revenues that might be realized by such a facility could help finance the facilitation/enhancement of less lucrative outdoor activities," the RFP says.
The document specifies that the lodge's public spaces must be open to all park visitors, not just those staying in guest rooms. The RFP calls for a lodge with 75 to 100 rooms, and commands that the lodge's architecture must use "native, natural materials and rustic and sustainable design features."
The state wants the lodge to have "components like great halls, grand fireplace and great public porch features." The document cites lodges such as those at Yellowstone or Glacier national parks as examples to be emulated.
The area along the Niagara Scenic Parkway east of the falls "is largely an unknown to visitors to the area," the RFP says. The state suggests basic facilities, such as a restroom and a seasonal food stand at the NYPA intakes that carry water to the power plant in Lewiston, along with the chance to rent bikes and fishing gear, and the possible establishment of cross country ski trails.
In Niagara Falls State Park, the RFP specifies that the existing structures must remain, but the old Goat Island carriage house, now used by State Parks as a management and support building, could be reused as "a signature dining facility or an outdoor recreation outfitting facility."
The state also suggests that the little-used parking lot at the eastern end of Goat Island, which was supposed to be the lodge site, might be used for "a sensitively designed 'natural' water element that could provide summer respite and potentially a location for ice skating in the winter months." Also, it envisions cross country skiing or skating along the Goat Island ring road, if rental and warming areas are established.
In the gorge, the state suggests improvements and expansion of the Discovery Center; rappelling along the surviving wall of the Schoellkopf Power Station, which collapsed into the gorge in 1956; and fishing at the base of the wall.
Also, an additional hiking trail could be installed from the base of the old power plant wall, in an area now unused by hikers "except for the most adventurous souls."
Once the $42 million removal of the Niagara Scenic Parkway from Main Street to Findlay Drive is carried out by 2020, more green space on the gorge rim will be available, and the RFP says that a wide range of potential outdoor activities could be placed there.
The suggestions for the three northern parks call for adaptive reuse of existing buildings, especially at DeVeaux Woods, and possible ziplining or rock climbing in the gorge, based at Whirlpool. The state also suggests that Whirlpool might be a good spot for stables to facilitate "gorge-wide horseback riding."
"The idea of improving the Discovery Center is a great idea as it has the germ of really important interpretation and is located in a very special spot along the gorge. I would argue that the primary vision of the gorge should be for passive enjoyment of the natural world with professional interpretation so that people know what they are seeing and experiencing.
" I am not opposed to more active recreational opportunities around the Discovery Center as long as they don't threaten the ecological or visual resources already there," Schneekloth said. "I do not think there should be a zipline over Whirlpool. That will be in everybody's vision and those who seek a more pastoral experience will have to put up with it and with the screams that accompany it. It is too exposed, and that view belongs to everybody."
Bidders are expected to present plans for a phased, multiyear rollout of new facilities and activities.
“We look forward to working with our partners to help realize Gov. Cuomo’s vision to offer new and exciting experiences for Niagara Falls visitors,” said Mark Thomas, State Parks Western District director.