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LOCKPORT -- The Niagara County Charter Commission elected Legislator Samuel P. Granieri its chairman Wednesday.

Granieri, R-Niagara Falls, said the 15-member committee expects to decide within 45 days whether the county needs a charter.

Assuming it does, the timeline adopted Wednesday calls for the charter to be submitted to the Legislature by June, with hopes that it will clear the Legislature and be placed on the ballot for a referendum in November 2001.

Granieri said the commission plans to hold a series of public forums and also seek out polling data on the issue of whether the county should have an executive or administrator.

Under state law, a charter can be written for use with any form of county government, including the committee system the county uses now.

Board commissions school inspection

SANBORN -- The Niagara-Wheatfield School Board hired Habiterra Associates on Wednesday to conduct a $30,000 inspection of district buildings. The firm will make the inspection as part of the building condition survey mandated by the state Education Department to monitor school facilities.

School Superintendent Judith Howard said the inspection is a new requirement by the state to determine long-range plans for building condition and repair. The mandate was made because some city school districts allowed buildings to deteriorate beyond repair.

School Business Executive Kerin Dumphrey said the subsequent yearly surveys that had to be turned in would not be as extensive and would contain only updated information.

In another matter, the board heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Robert Gallagher regarding the district's upcoming professional development plan and academic intervention plan. Both plans are being implemented to prepare for the higher academic standards the state is putting into place by 2005, he said.

Part of the development plan would require all teachers to undergo 175 hours of professional development every five years to maintain their certification. The academic intervention would provide extra instruction for students who were not expected to meet the state standards.

Freedom Trail Festival begins Saturday

NIAGARA FALLS -- A Freedom Trail Festival will be inaugurated Saturday to celebrate Niagara's role in the Underground Railroad, which helped 30,000 slaves escape to Canada.

The event will be from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Main Street between Ontario and Niagara Avenues. Food, artisans, music and entertainment for young and old will begin at noon.

Historic interpreters from Motherland Connextions will invite the public at 11:30 a.m. to walk together across the "Suspension Bridge," now known as the Whirlpool Bridge, re-enacting the walk many slaves took in their flight to freedom.

Underground Railroad bus tours at 1 and 5:30 p.m. will visit locations in Niagara Falls and Lewiston where escaped slaves were hidden by families who took grave risks. The two-hour tours will begin at Niagara Avenue and Main, behind the bandstand.

The Niagara Experience Players will perform at 1 p.m., and an audiovisual production, "From Bondage to Freedom," will be put on at 1:30 by Motherland Connextions. Performance Works will entertain at 1:45.

The Mapapa acrobatic troupe from Kenya and the Amazing Tunka, from the Caribbean, will perform from 3:15 to 5, followed by Nubiessence Jazz.

"Our goal is to make this an annual event that will attract people from all over Western New York and Southern Ontario," said David Blackburn, director of multicultural and international student affairs at Niagara University. He will co-chair the event with Bonnie Soley of the Main Street Business & Professional Association.

Strong first week for United Way drive

NIAGARA FALLS -- The United Way raised $122,596 during the first week of its eight-week campaign, General Chairman Marilyn Lojek reported.

This is more than 10 percent of the campaign's goal of $1,210,000 in Niagara County.

Reporting increases in corporate gifts this year are Felton Machine Co., up 25 percent; Goodyear/Gemini Service Center, 20 percent; Promex Medical, 9 percent; and Precious Plate, 7 percent.

A Victory Celebration Luncheon will be held Nov. 10 to mark the campaign's end.

New copter pad will speed gorge rescues

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. -- Rescuing people from the Niagara Gorge got a little easier Wednesday.

A helicopter landing pad, constructed in the Whirlpool basin over the past few weeks, will allow for safer helicopter landings and will speed rescues, said Niagara Parks Commission chairman Brian Merritt.

"It just makes everything easier," he said. "Before, the helicopters had to land on a very rocky area."

Niagara Helicopters "flew everything down there. Equipment, men, everything," Merritt said. "It took over 30 hours of flying time to get everything done, and you have to realize the flight to the pad only takes two or three minutes."

"This is where we have the most trouble, the most rescues," said Niagara Parks Police Chief Ray Vassallo.

"It is mostly fishermen and hikers who get stuck."

This year, three people needed to be rescued from the Whirlpool basin.

Vassallo said most years, about 14 people get trapped.

"This has been a good, quiet year," he said.

Lockport treasurer named to state panel

LOCKPORT -- City Treasurer James W. Ashcraft Jr. has been appointed to a state comptrollers advisory panel.

Ashcraft was named to this year's Local Advisory Team, a committee of local government financial officials who will be asked to give input on the design or improvement of new and existing programs in the comptroller's Division of Municipal Affairs.

Ashcraft said the group's first meeting is Monday in Albany.

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