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PARK FOR PROFIT <br> WONDER OF THE WORLD: HOW NIAGARA FELL <br> THE STATE HAS USED THE FLOW OF CASH FROM NIAGARA FALLS TO IMPROVE OTHER PARKS. BUT WHEN WILL THIS JEWEL GET ITS DUE?

New York's only natural wonder of the world -- which draws millions of tourists from around the globe every year -- rakes in a small fortune for the state.

But when it comes to improvements, Albany returns only a pittance to the park that surrounds the American side of the falls.

For every dollar the Niagara Reservation State Park sent to Albany over the past five years, the state invested about 8 cents in improvements at Niagara Falls. Last year, the Niagara park -- the state's most popular, with more than 7.5 million visitors -- took in $6 million.

The falls roar on, and the sightseers keep coming. That remains a constant. So has the failure of the Niagara Reservation State Park, and the city that surrounds it, to realize its potential as an economic engine for the region.

Nor has the park -- with its parking lots and concession areas marring the natural setting -- remained true to the original vision of designer Frederick Law Olmsted, critics say.

New Yorkers, even those who live here and have witnessed it all, still shake their heads when Niagara Falls is mentioned.

What happened? How did it get this bad? Can anything reverse what many say amounts to the squandering of a natural wonder?

A Buffalo News investigation has found:

The Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has turned its Niagara Falls park into a money-making center, using its revenue to pay for projects across the state while New York's world-famous park stagnated.

The parks system's hunger for revenue could clash with Albany's vision of remaking Niagara Reservation State Park into a globally renowned eco-tourism destination.

Gov. George E. Pataki's administration
has touted private investment in public parks as an answer to chronic underfunding, but it has fallen far short of a cure.

Getting only 8 percent of the money generated in Niagara Falls returned for projects over the past five years is "pretty disgusting," said Niagara Falls parks activist Bob Baxter.

"It seems like if we got a fair amount back, the state park might investigate removing the Robert Moses Parkway, or the Goat Island parking lots, or that horrible restaurant on Terrapin Point," he said.

A tower of problems

Consider the Prospect Point Observation Tower, where the state plans to install four new elevators where two operate now. The $23 million project, announced in 1998, remains delayed by design changes. At first the state said it would remove the unsightly tower, but changed plans when that was deemed too expensive.

The new elevators could not come too soon for sightseers, who line up for more than two hours at peak times for the ride. On Labor Day, the busiest day of the year for the Maid of the Mist, one of the elevators broke down for more than three hours.

The original elevator cars, installed in 1961, remain in operation. State parks generated nearly $4 million from them over the past decade, at 50 cents a person.

It could be the best 50 cents a sightseer ever spent. But it also fuels thoughts about the limitations of state parks' current funding scheme.

Steps lead from the elevator's base to the foot of the falls. Sightseers can pose for snapshots with the falls as a backdrop. In the mist-laden gorge, a rainbow arcs overhead whenever the sun shines.

But a visit on an August Saturday found workers hadn't been around recently to pick up the trash. At the stairs' pinnacle, a heavily trafficked area, several lower strands of the cable safety fence were torn out in spots, and two fence posts wobbled alarmingly in their sockets.

Sightseers may not have noticed, or not minded, the loose fence posts. The lack of bathrooms at the base of the tower is another matter.

The new elevators are expected to greatly speed the process, but the wait can be longer than an hour at peak time. What are small children expected to do when, prompted by all that falling water, the call of nature strikes?

"Find a rock to go behind," a gift shop employee suggested.

The loose posts and dangling fence cable may not, in fact, have posed a safety risk. Sightseers who descend to the gorge at off-peak times, or without small children, are unlikely to face the indignity of potty panic.

But the question remains: With all the benefits that New York State and its parks system reaps from Niagara Falls -- the prestige of a worldwide icon, the magnet to millions, the cold hard cash it makes -- should this park go begging?

Not always a priority

Last year, the park made nearly $6 million, state officials said, mainly from parking fees and attraction proceeds. That money goes to the state parks' capital improvement fund in Albany, where officials dole out money for capital improvements to the system's 161 parks.

Since 1995, the Niagara Falls park sent $25.3 million to Albany.

In that time, state parks spent about $2 million on capital improvements -- such as major repairs and new landscape features -- at Niagara Falls, according to state data. Millions of dollars more in park operating costs, such as personnel and routine maintenance like lawn mowing, are accounted for separately.

Of the $2 million in capital improvement spending since 1995, nearly half was invisible to visitors.

About 28 percent went to engineering studies and assessments related to overhauling the Prospect Point Observation Tower.

Another 21 percent went outside the park -- to repairing the former NFTA bus garage on Buffalo Avenue, now a maintenance center for vehicles used across the 14-park Niagara Region. The Buffalo Avenue garage did cut down the flow of state park vehicles onto Goat Island.

The rest was used to fix up the park at the falls, renovating restrooms, rehabilitating the Cave of the Winds, protecting fragile shorelines and other projects.

State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro defended the level of state spending at Niagara Falls. From maintenance to parks police, Castro said, the state spends millions each year to operate its most popular park.

Precise operating cost numbers are unknown, parks officials said, as the state parks system does not keep track of operating expenses by individual parks.

When it comes to capital spending, the Niagara Region's state parks officials have never come to Albany to ask for more, Castro said.

"I don't know of a specific capital project that was made clear to us by the region that we ignored, or that we did not fund," Castro said.

She pointed out that state parks spent about $7.5 million to buy and develop Hamburg's Woodlawn Beach. Now that that project has been completed, state parks has taken on the renewal of the Niagara Reservation as a top statewide priority, Castro said.

"In all fairness to the state, if we didn't do Woodlawn Beach, maybe this would have been on the books three years ago," Castro said. "This is now the priority."

The Niagara Reservation might be a priority today, but the amount of capital spending in the park over the past five years seems "totally unfair," said State Sen. Alfred T. Coppola, D-Buffalo. "Given Niagara Falls' position as one of the best-known sights, not just in this country but in Europe, there should be more funds and more attention put back into the park."

Despite her defense of spending at Niagara Falls, Castro agreed that Niagara Reservation State Park is overdue for renewal, after decades of atrophy -- mostly under prior governors.

In April, to much fanfare, Castro announced plans for a sweeping overhaul aimed at transforming America's first state park into an "eco-tourism destination" that celebrates the vision of famed park designer Olmsted.

The state has kept its promise, during its decades of stewardship, to stop others from commercializing the park. Now, with eco-tourism seen as the future, critics wonder: Can state parks limit its own commercial exploitation?

A stone's throw from the gorge, diesel-belching tour buses and campers park on Goat Island, where blacktop replaced woodlands in the 1960s.

Ruled out, Castro said, is commercial development of parkland.

But so far, ruled out, too, is the environmentalists' dream of removing the parking lots and the Top of the Falls restaurant and shops from Goat Island. That troubles state park critics, who wonder if the state's eco-tourism gospel will end up as yet another broken promise haunting Niagara Falls.

Parking lots, including two on Goat Island and one on the mainland, brought in $1.3 million last year.

State parks should stop "trying to have their cake and eat it, too, and just stop calling it a reservation," said Niagara Falls historian and author Paul Gromosiak. "You don't mow a nature preserve."

If Olmsted knew of the parking-retail complex Goat Island had become, "he would be spinning in his grave," said Gromosiak.

But Olmsted was a pragmatist and might not have objected to Goat Island parking lots, Castro said. In the context of the park's finances, Castro said, "parking revenue is a very important part of what we do."

"Would (Olmsted) like to have pavement where he didn't generate revenue? No. . . . He'd probably say, 'What do you really need?' "

"That's the process we're going through," said Castro. "What do we really need, and what really generates revenue?"

Money talks

In Olmsted's original plan for Niagara, he urged against marring Goat Island's natural beauty with a restaurant.

But in today's state parks system, money talks. Besides the park's share of restaurant profits, Delaware North Cos., the restaurant's operator, funded more than $400,000 in park improvements in recent years. Which helps explain why, as the state parks system declares its renewed sensitivity to the Olmsted vision, there is also a plan to upgrade the Top of the Falls restaurant and souvenir shop.

Castro's back-to-nature announcement still brings cautious cheers from environmental groups. After decades of little change, only time will tell if the state finally has made a priority of renewing its only world-famous natural attraction.

For tourist Leon Maldonado, it's not the ambience that matters.

"It's a nice park for what it is," Maldonado said. But the New Jersey mechanic, traveling with his two daughters, spoke for millions when he said, "I just wish there was more to do around here."

Without more to occupy his family in the park, Maldonado said, they were going to Canada. There, they would get a hotel room -- and spend the rest of their vacation budget.

Feeding the beast

The state parks' acute hunger for cash began long before Castro and Pataki came to power.

The Pataki administration recently has done better at providing money to buy park-related land, said Richard White Smith, executive director of the New York Parks and Conservation Association.

"They have also begun to make some dents in the backlog" of needed improvements and maintenance, Smith said.

The total budget for the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has grown under Pataki, to $211 million. Without adjusting for inflation, the office's budget has increased 13 percent since 1995-96. While the parks budget has increased, so have fixed costs such as state employee wages and benefits. The state system also has added 11 parks to its care since 1993.

But compare what state parks allocates for capital improvements to its needs, and the hunger for cash becomes clear.

In 1990, state parks estimated that $1.8 billion was needed to restore the parks to good repair.

The State Parks Infrastructure Fund, supported by user fees and revenues such as Niagara Falls profits, was created to provide $300 million over 10 years. But that met only one-sixth of the estimated need. The current parks budget allocates $38 million to capital improvements.

The gap grew over 20 years of mainly Democratic rule following the state's 1970s fiscal crisis, according to a 1993 analysis by the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.

The park building boom of the 1920s and 1930s created one of America's premier state parks systems. But the recession-era budgets did not follow suit, the institute reported. Staff was cut, and while operating budgets grew, they did not keep pace with the rising number of visitors. Adjusted for inflation, the report said, capital spending dropped by 80 percent in the previous 20 years.

The result was a parks system suffering from chronic financial malnutrition.

In a state budget, "parks are one of the easiest things to cut," said Gary Weiskopf, the analyst who wrote the 1993 report. As long as managers avoid actually closing parks, they can largely avoid public outcry, he said. But maintenance, staffing and capital improvements can be "cut and cut, and it doesn't show up for a while."

Castro, testifying before the State Legislature in 1996, said it was unrealistic and impossible for government to pay the $1.8 billion cost on its own. Since then, Castro has encouraged park employees to think of ways that corporations could be encouraged to join in ventures with parks to raise money.

Joan K. Davidson, former state parks commissioner, said the Pataki administration deserves credit for spending to acquire new land for parks.

But "especially now in these prosperous times," Davidson wondered, "why isn't there more for parks maintenance?"

Davidson stressed that she has a great deal of respect for the current administration. But "we have a basic fundamental difference in philosophy," she said. "I believe in public support of parks. They believe in private support of parks.

"Once you make up your mind you've got to rely on private sources for park investment, then inevitably public support goes elsewhere -- to build four-lane highways or something."

ABOUT THE SERIES

This is the first part of a Buffalo News investigation of the problems plaguing Niagara FAlls- one of America's leading tourist destinations- and its economically distressed neighboring city.

Reporter Andrew Z. Galarneau has spent months examining public records and conducting dozens of interviews. The series reveals how the state and region have failed to realize the potential of their most precious natural resource.

Other stories will appear occasionally over the next few weeks.

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