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IT IS HARD to say which is more lamentable: the fact that the Shooters Cafe project yielded only a waterfront bar and restaurant, which could be built anywhere, instead of an accompanying marina, or that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority may be powerless to do too much about it.

Still, no matter how this fiasco turns out, it has served one useful purpose. The NFTA's mismanagement of the project amply illustrates the fact that it is unsuited for managing valuable waterfront land.

The authority should stick to what it does best and what it was designated to do: oversee the area's transportation system. It should leave waterfront development to the agency designated to handle that chore.

That agency, of course, is the Horizons Waterfront Commission, which has now issued the first part of its four-part master plan. The initial segment deals with land use along the waterfront while the remaining segments will focus on zoning and design standards and a strategy for implementing the whole thing.

Horizons, with that as its sole mission, is better suited to assuring the public a properly developed waterfront than is an agency like the NFTA. The transit agency, almost by necessity, has looked on its waterfront holdings as money-making opportunities.

Even if the Shooters project had come off as envisioned, it would not make the NFTA the proper steward of 400 acres of prime waterfront land. An agency consultant underscored this recently when he recommended the authority get out of the land development business and concentrate on transportation.

That the Shooters project didn't go as planned highlights the conflict between the NFTA's primary goals and the goals of those who care about the waterfront as a recreational and environmental asset.

The cafe has now closed, at least temporarily, because of a sea of red ink and an inability to attract long-term financing. The marina, which was supposed to have been built first according to the lease the NFTA granted developers, has never gotten off the drawing board.

Now the authority is pondering what to do next after a host of lease violations and a missed payment. If it tries to take over the facility, it could be stuck with a large bill if it must reimburse developers for part of the money they've invested.

Undoubtedly, any adversarial proceeding would be complicated by the fact that the NFTA appears to have acquiesced in the developers' efforts to circumvent lease requirements by allowing them to open the restaurant before the marina.

In short, the NFTA has let its developers concoct a mess. Officials should settle on a way to transfer the authority's waterfront parcels into the hands of the Horizons Commission. The area has only one waterfront. It cannot afford more missteps.

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