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BOATERS HAVE a friend in Tom Blanchard.

He is a seasoned boater and former sailboat racer. He cares enough about the sport that when he moved here from Virginia last November, he decided to sail his 45-foot ketch from its berth on the Chesapeake Bay to Lake Erie. The boat is docked on the Erie Canal, and should complete the voyage this week.

Better still for boaters is the reason Blanchard came to Buffalo: As executive director of the Horizons Waterfront Commission, he is a player in planning how this community will use its waterfront.

After a slow start, Horizons unveiled its goals for the waterfront last week. The results were not startling; they were predictable. Public access gets priority along with emphasis on opening spaces for recreation and cleaning up hazardous wastes.

The plan admittedly was vague and left some community leaders looking for specifics.

Blanchard says those specifics will come, but not before the commission hears from the public.

The last of three public hearings on the goals statement will be held at 7 tonight in Tonawanda City Hall.

The city and county have invited public comment at countless meetings in recent years. Another waterfront planning effort several years ago fizzled when leaders couldn't agree on what to do with the foot of Main Street and the lakefront property off Fuhrmann Boulevard that is owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

But that's in the past, Blanchard says, and a new crop of planners will come up with a plan many hope will guide waterfront development for the next 30 years.

As a boater and boat enthusiast (he has been building his own boat for seven years), Blanchard doesn't need any statistical analysis to tell him this region needs more marinas, more dry storage areas, more launch ramps, more boating service areas and more facilities for fishermen and the handicapped.

Blanchard has first-hand knowledge: He couldn't get a slip on the Buffalo shoreline for his boat, so he expects to moor "Seque" at Point Abino.

"Boating demands are critical. Erie County citizens already have said that," says Blanchard. "There obviously is a huge demand for slips."

Blanchard says the region doesn't know how deep that demand is and when it may be affected by price.

"At any place," he says, "there is a limit of what people are willing and able to pay. That's why we have to look at alternatives like dry storage."

Blanchard figures there are many owners of 18- to 22-foot powerboats who would be happy to store their boats on land as long as they could launch them easily with the help of a lift.

"We have a lot of waterfront, but it's not infinite and we need to use it wisely," he adds. "Those are the kinds of decisions we haven't made."

Marinas also add to the waterfront ambiance that non-boaters enjoy, Blanchard notes.

"If land parks are in view of marinas, it creates a tone," he says. "It says this is a place for recreation. I'm not saying that boating is the only thing, but it is a major piece of it."

Although Horizons is a creature of the state Urban Development Corporation, it doesn't have any development money. Projects are funded by developers. The most recent is Shooters Restaurant. An adjoining marina for 700 boats was supposed to be built this summer but was delayed when developers couldn't get financing.

Blanchard says he sees Horizons using public money to leverage private investment.

"We're going to be proactive in at least promoting certain sites for different types of usage," he says.

As optimistic as he is, Blanchard is also practical. Just as his former home port on the Chesapeake Bay took years to develop the clusters of marinas and boating destinations that attract cruisers, it will take years -- maybe decades -- for the Buffalo area to develop its waterfront.

"Our job is to try to meet as many of those demands as quickly as we can," he says.

Events restrict harbor use

This weekend's Friendship Festival includes two events that will close portions of the Buffalo Harbor and the Niagara River.

The festival air show will close a portion of the river from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Boats will be kept away from an area in the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor from the Peace Bridge south to the abandoned lighthouse, a mile west of Erie Basin Marina, across the Black Rock Canal entrance. The canal will be open but the river will not.

The Ultra Can-Am Challenge, a high-speed race featuring some 50 offshore boats, will be held Saturday. The starting and finishing lines for the 60-mile race will be in the inner harbor in front of Shooters.

The race will close the Buffalo Harbor, including the Small Boat Harbor and the Buffalo River, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Boats can not leave the river marinas or the Small Boat Harbor during those times without an escort from the U.S. Coast Guard. Boats can leave the Erie Basin Marina as long as they enter the lake around the north breakwater.

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