As backhoes and bulldozers rumble across the site of Erie Canal Harbor, they offer the first visible signs the long-delayed waterfront project is under way.
The $46.3 million project will recreate the western end of the Erie Canal, which launched Buffalo's rise to prominence in the 19th century. Completed in 1825, the canal linked Buffalo with Albany, creating a waterway between the Great Lakes and New York City and dramatically transforming U.S. commerce, industry and immigration.
"It feels great to start moving dirt. Everybody associated with it feels there's a new dawn," said Thomas D. Blanchard Jr., Empire State Development Corp.'s director of research and planning, and overseer of the project from its infancy.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello also heralded the beginning of construction.
"This is, I think, a milestone moment in our ability to continue to redefine Buffalo as a place to visit, to live and to work," Masiello said.
The project is scheduled to be completed in late 2007, although questions remain about its final appearance. Rep. Brian M. Higgins and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, Buffalo Democrats, said they are encouraged by the start of construction but expressed concerns the project would fall short without interpretive elements proposed but not funded.
"If you're going to do the project, do it right," Higgins said.
When the Erie Canal Harbor opens, it will boast a rewatered and navigable Commercial Slip and replica of a canal-era bridge in its original location; a reconstructed Central Wharf with a festival plaza; and original streetscapes.
There will be two indoor museums on site -- a new Naval and Military History Museum moved adjacent to Veterans Park and an Erie Canal/Great Lakes Museum tied into the expected Bass Pro Outdoor World Store planned for the former Memorial Auditorium.
There also will be a mix of leisure and recreational activities, including maritime access and expected retail shops and eateries with facades that blend with the Erie Canal theme.
Charles Gargano, chairman of Empire State Development, emphasized that the Erie Canal Harbor has turned a corner. "We are confident that this [construction] will serve as a clear signal to the community that this project is moving forward."
Until now, the Erie Canal Harbor project has seen anything but smooth sailing.
Years of plans fell by the wayside after pressure by preservationists and County Executive Joel A. Giambra led Gov. George E. Pataki in October 2000 to call for a redesign with more emphasis on the canal's heritage. A lawsuit initiated by the Preservation Coalition of Erie County in March 2000 and a two-day "Canal Conversation" organized by recent mayoral candidate Kevin Gaughan that year helped galvanize opinion.
Public meetings by Empire State Development followed, giving way over the past two years to planning and design work.
Meanwhile, the only sign of change before the movement of construction equipment was the size of tall weeds overrunning the 12-acre parcel.
Scot Fisher, one of the preservationists who helped change the direction of Erie Canal Harbor, said he feels vindicated by the project's change of course.
"I felt for a long time, along with a few other people, like Chicken Little running around saying the sky is falling. The Erie Canal is one of the most important historic sites, it's the big story of Buffalo, and in the end I think we did the right thing," Fisher said.
> Artifacts recovered
Seven archaeologists sifted through clay silt Monday in search of ancient artifacts. They were standing, trowels in hand, about 8 feet below the historic street level where Commercial Street once stood, and where the naval museum will be.
They reaped quite a bounty.
Stone tools and pottery were among 15,000 to 20,000 artifacts recovered -- some at least 1,000 years old, according to Frank Schieppati, principal investigator for Panamerican Consultants, which specializes in maritime archaeology.
Schieppati said it was one of the five richest sites for artifacts he had encountered in 25 years.
Tim Tielman, who heads the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture and as executive director once directed the Preservation Coalition's efforts to redirect the project, had no such luck.
While he said he was glad to see visible signs of the canal project under way, he was rebuffed by Empire State Development in his offer to hire a company to screen the soil for artifacts where the Commercial Slip has been unearthed.
Tielman hoped to exhibit artifacts such as old bottles and oyster shells to tell Buffalo's story.
Empire State Development cited safety, liability and logistical concerns in denying the request.
The project's first phase of construction calls for the removal of canal stones that line both sides of the slip so a steel foundation can be built. The stones eventually will be returned and made visible when the slip is rewatered.
When that's completed, the massive, 350-foot-long Hamburg drain -- 22 feet wide, 17 feet deep, and with 3-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls -- will be removed.
Higgins believes that for the project to be done right, more than 1 percent of the budget must be allocated for interpretive replicas and other displays.
> Exhibits are essential
Imaginative elements presented by consultants during the planning process included a cut-out vessel built into the side of the wharf, a reconstructed boat in the Commercial Slip and ghosted structures on the wharf promenade to recreate facades of original buildings.
"These are not add-ons -- they're essential to the project," Higgins said.
The additional interpretation elements have a price tag of about $3.3 million, Higgins said, of which $425,000 is budgeted. He questioned why Empire State was not actively seeking the funds, but said he was determined to find them.
Hoyt also said the site will need the outdoor, state-of-the-art interpretive elements. "I want to celebrate, in a little over two years, a world-class tourist destination. Along with that should be the most impressive Erie Canal interpretive exhibits that exist."
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. was established recently to provide more local oversight over waterfront development and reach a final agreement to bring Bass Pro to Buffalo.
> Music in its future
"We're all pleased to see that there is some progress after all the expectations and anticipations," said Anthony Gioia, the commission's chairman.
So is Buffalo Place. It launched Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor in 1998, anticipating that it could hold concerts at the Erie Canal Harbor in 2002. It's now hoping to do that in 2008.
Peggy Beardsley, Buffalo Place's associate director, said it has been in contact with Empire State to ensure the site will be able to support events.
Buffalo Place will be responsible for programming, maintenance and snow removal, as it is for the pedestrian mall, Lafayette Square and Fountain Plaza.
"We can't wait for the opening of the harbor," Beardsley said.
"People have been so cynical about [the project] over the years, the way they point to the Peace Bridge. But this is a real thing, and it's going to happen."