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OUR TARNISHED JEWEL

Think Cinderella, pre-prince, and you've got an idea of the gross insult heaped upon Niagara Falls. A beauty of royal bearing is cloaked in dowdiness, subjected to continual affronts to her dignity while waiting for someone to deliver her to a place befitting her birthright.

By the lights of State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, that someone has arrived in the personage of the governor, a.k.a. Prince Pataki. It's a fair observation that the governor has begun paying more attention to Niagara Falls than his recent predecessors, and it's something for which Western New York can be thankful. But whether he holds the glass slipper is not at all certain.

In fact, although the state has begun devoting more money to the Niagara Reservation, a recent story in The News by Andrew Z. Galarneau shows that over the past five years, Albany has invested in the park at a pitiful rate, putting in only eight cents of capital improvements for every dollar it takes out. Operating costs are, admittedly, a separate matter.

With 152 state parks to support, competition for state funding is inevitably fierce and, all things being equal, nothing would be horribly wrong with that. But things are not equal. Niagara Falls is the state's most-visited park, a natural wonder of the first rank and one that sits prominently on an international boundary. Beyond that, it is shabby, an embarrassment to Western New Yorkers and any American who visits there. A trip across the river to Niagara Falls, Ont., only underscores New York's woeful presentation of its crown jewel.

Not to be crass, but the difference between the two parks is money. In a creative deal, the Ontario park takes no money from the province, but is allowed to keep all of the revenue it generates. The result is there to be seen: The park is well presented and well maintained.

The Pataki administration has tried its own creative ways of putting money into the park, mainly by luring the private sector into partnerships that benefit all concerned. Properly handled, that is a useful strategy, one that should be continued. But it's not enough. It can defray the public costs of maintaining public spaces, but it cannot substitute for a full-hearted commitment by government to meet its obligations.

Albany is not alone in needing to rise to the occasion. City and county governments have important parts to play and while Washington, so far, does not, it should. Although New York would resist any effort to transform Niagara into a national park, the falls' status as an attraction and its place on the international boundary make it a natural for federal assistance.

But Albany's role is large, and while Pataki is shaping up as a comparative blessing, the state is still falling short of meeting its obligations at Niagara Falls. At a minimum, it needs to let the park keep a greater share of the revenue it produces, money that can be spent on capital improvements.

More basic than that, though, it has to demonstrate that it recognizes the special place Niagara Falls occupies in the world's imagination and then act to ensure that a trip there does not fall radically short.

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