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STATE PARKS SYSTEM IS LOOKING TO PRIVATE INVESTORS TO BAIL IT OUT

After inheriting a state parks system more than a billion dollars behind in improvements, Gov. George E. Pataki didn't ask taxpayers to foot the bill.

Instead, his administration followed his pro-business gospel and asked private business to pay for fixing public parks.

Some people wonder why the federal government doesn't take over Niagara Falls from the state.

As early as 1990, the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation estimated that $1.8 billion was needed to restore the sprawling parks system.

In 1996, Pataki's parks commissioner, Bernadette Castro, told the Legislature it was unrealistic and impossible for state government to pay the huge sum. Parks should ask the private sector for help, she said.

Companies already doing business in the parks, such as selling food or running events, were asked to provide money for capital improvements. Real estate developers were invited to bid on constructing projects for public use.

After four years, the initiative has helped the state improve several parks. But it has fallen far short of an answer to the parks system's needs.

"Commissioner Castro is right -- we don't have a billion dollars for the parks system," said Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.

But the state parks' public-private partnership initiative isn't the answer, Tokasz said.

"I don't think it's even part of the answer," he added.

Parks has called deals such as selling Coca-Cola pouring rights in state parks "public-private partnerships," but those deals don't spur economic development, said Tokasz.

The charge on investment ought to be led by the state Department of Economic Development, said Tokasz. But its "woeful" performance has left parks carrying the load.

The private sector can't always be convinced that a project will turn them a profit, Tokasz said. But the need remains, and in those cases "it falls on government to make almost the entire investment."

But with state parks' capital improvements budget shrinking over recent years, needs can take years to address. From 1985 to 1990, the state parks capital budget averaged $68.4 million; from 1990 to 1995, $42.8 million; from 1995 to 2000, $33.1 million. It's at $38.5 million in the current budget.

In most cases, the businesses that invest in state parks are making money, too. But the public benefits, parks officials say, when improvements are made that otherwise wouldn't get done.

An entertainment company that runs the Jones Beach Theatre has spent $10 million to add seats to the Long Island concert venue. The 2002 U.S. Open will be held at the Bethpage Black State Park golf course on Long Island. Open organizers will provide $2.6 million for improvements, and Pataki added $850,000 in the state budget to prepare the course.

Where private investors haven't been sold on investing in state parks, often little has happened. At Beaver Island State Park, whose main visitors center burned down in 1992, nothing has been built to replace it.

In 1998, state parks announced a deal with a developer to build a $5 million resort complex on the site. But in July, the development deal fell apart, leaving state parks officials -- and users of the park -- at Square One.

But at Fort Niagara State Park, a developer will spend $3.6 million to renovate three buildings into a 16-suite bed-and-breakfast facility, a 60-room hotel and a theater-plus-conference center.

Niagara Reservation State Park has benefited from the History Channel's agreement to donate $25,000 for projection equipment for the visitor center's theater. The cable network also donated an abridged version of its Niagara Falls documentary that visitors pay to see.

Maid of the Mist has agreed to contribute $5 million toward a $23 million replacement of Prospect Point Observation Tower elevators.

If the state parks system can't afford to take care of the Niagara Reservation, critics have asked, why can't a national treasure like Niagara Falls become part of the federal parks system?

U.S. Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton has supported exploring a federal takeover.

"I think that we've got to do something," Clinton said. "I don't believe we've put together the resources and really mustered the will to create the kind of tourist destination that the American side should be."

Making the American Falls part of the federal parks system might allow the park to tap into federal resources, Clinton said.

Parks Commissioner Castro dismissed the suggestion as political posturing.

"This park is not a pawn," she said.

"The National Park Service does not have enough funding to take care of its own plate, and with the fires out West it is absolutely inundated with financial requests," Castro said. "They would not want to take on the Niagara Reservation. And in addition to that, we would certainly not want to turn it over."

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