Mud, details and dreams came together last week on Buffalo's urban waterfront. Three projects -- the long-delayed Erie Canal Harbor, long-controversial city casino and long-range planning for removal of the Skyway -- showed progress in a city desperate for reassurance.
Renewed work on the historic foot of Main Street shoreline offers the most hope for real change. Work crews have shovels in the ground, and they're not only moving dirt but sifting it for artifacts from the canal district's storied past. Delayed for a heritage-themed redesign, inner harbor work is once more building momentum.
Having regained that edge, New York State still must do more. Reconstructing the historic Commercial Slip, the link that opened the nation's heartlands by connecting the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes, makes little sense if the state doesn't boost its budget for historic interpretation from $425,000 to the $3.3 million needed for envisioned interpretive elements. Buffalo's Canal District isn't just a place, it's a story, and that story must be told well to the Xbox generation, or it will turn ghostly.
History and heritage tourism are absolutely vital to the Empire State Development Corp. canal harbor project, designed to provide not only public access amenities but parcels of building-ready land for private development. That project, in turn, is linked strongly to hopes for a major transportation-retail complex centered on a Bass Pro megastore in a converted Memorial Auditorium.
The Bass Pro project -- which includes an intramodal transportation center, parking facilities and a separate new museum in addition to the outdoor sports superstore on lower Main Street -- also has new energy. A new Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. adds local control and local urgency to the effort. Bass Pro officials, even though dealing with hurricane damage to two Southern stores and the opening of four new ones, now have renewed work on contract details.
Meanwhile, the Seneca Nation is expected to announce its intended site for a state-negotiated Buffalo casino soon. NFTA officials confirmed they are in talks concerning the former waterfront DL&W train terminal. That site makes more sense than other proposals, and would not only tie inner harbor projects to the adjoining Cobblestone District and HSBC Arena but provide a synergistic "bookend" to match the Bass Pro project on the other side of the Erie Canal Harbor. A casino must enhance the waterfront, and the city is obligated to see that money the state receives from the casino is dedicated to the best city cause.
Also during the week, the Buffalo Common Council and Town of Hamburg joined Lackawanna in supporting Rep. Brian Higgins' call for a study of Skyway alternatives that could lead to a more city-friendly replacement of that commuter route bridge, which overshadows the new Erie Canal Harbor.
Higgins argues that maintaining the bridge will prove as costly as replacing it, an option that could better open the outer harbor to major redevelopment projects already being planned. While it will take that study to define costs accurately, an early ballpark replacement bridge estimate is $140 million. That would be weighed against needed Skyway repairs estimated by the state at more than $60 million and Higgins at over $100 million this decade, plus repainting costs of about $12 million every 10 years. It's time for an accurate cost assessment of each alternative, and the payback period for both. Vision, not just cost worries, should guide this decision.
In all, it was one of the better weeks on Buffalo's waterfront in quite some time. Now, build on the momentum.