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Federal money to further develop Niagara Falls State Park, and in the process boost the local economy, could become available within two years, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday.

"We want to give tourists reason to spend more time on this side of the border," Schumer told business leaders and local officials at Prospect Point, with a sun-drenched American Falls as the backdrop. "We have a great natural wonder, but we want to tie it in with the rest of the community."

Those federal dollars will be available when the park -- the oldest state park in the United States -- is officially designated a National Heritage Area.

Schumer and former Rep. John J. LaFalce secured $300,000 in federal funds to begin a feasibility study, the first step required before Congress can direct the secretary of the interior to authorize the national status.

The designation would make the park eligible for $10 million in federal funds over 10 years, providing the community matches the grant with its own $10 million. That contingency factor is why it's important to energize the local economy, local officials said.

Schumer said the feasibility study, which would establish a boundary for the area and outline a vision for the region, complete with tourism-related projects, should be completed in a year.

Once the study is done and the park is given federal status, Schumer said it will be his job to secure the federal funds, which could take from two to three years.

Making the state park a National Heritage Area is seen as a happy medium between keeping it under state control and making it a national park.

"National Heritage status is the best of both worlds," Schumer said. "It keeps the park under local control but at the same time provides federal input and federal dollars."

The heritage area would include the park and surrounding areas, such as the Main Street business district, a once-thriving and now heavily blighted area of the city.

"Local, state and federal involvement is a wonderful partnership," said State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro. "This is a process that works. Heritage tourism is the fastest-growing tourism in the country."

In June 2001, Schumer announced the formation of a Niagara Falls Advisory Panel, comprising 48 business and civic leaders and elected representatives who have been asked to provide local input as the plan progresses. The list of people on the panel ranges from figurehead names such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to grass-roots activists.

"We need to think of this as a campaign," said Robert McIntosh, the National Park Service's associate regional director, co-author of the prefeasibility survey with Terrence D. Moore, the region's chief of planning. "There's still a lot to be done to usher in a new era for Niagara Falls."

During the course of the feasibility study, National Park Service officials will meet with city and county planning and development heads, hold public meetings on general concepts and focus meetings on specific issues, McIntosh explained.

Finding the matching funds hasn't been a problem in the nation's other 23 National Heritage areas, he added.

"The community becomes electrified, and the money starts rolling in from corporations, foundations and private donations," he said.

There are only two heritage areas in New York State: the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, authorized by Congress in 2000, and the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, authorized in 1996.


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