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Greenway money opens many possibilities

Communities in the Niagara Power Coalition hope to spend Niagara River Greenway money on parks, sports fields and other taxpayer-pleasing projects that would otherwise have been out of reach.

None of the projects has passed the idea stage and been voted on, much less made it to architectural drawings. The money, part of the Niagara Power Project relicensing settlement, won't start flowing until next year.

Critics have called some of the proposed projects inappropriate uses of Greenway money -- including ideas, now abandoned, for a sports arena and an Olympic-sized hockey rink. But as long as projects are related to recreation, tourism or green space, no one outside Niagara County can say differently, County Legislature Chairman William Ross, C-Wheatfield, said last week.

Among ideas now in play:

* The Niagara Falls School District would like to renovate historic buildings in DeVeaux Woods State Park and consolidate its offices there, a $6 million to $8 million effort.

* The Town of Niagara is considering a $4 million to $6 million project to finish its town park, centered around a multipurpose building.

* The Lewiston-Porter School District is working on a long-range plan for recreational facility improvements, using the district's share of both Greenway and other Niagara Power Project settlement money. It envisions $28.8 million in work, as far as 30 years in the future.

* Niagara County's current plans include work on five county parks, then possibly Niagara County Community College improvements and a grant program.

Erie County forces might try to dictate what the money is spent on, but they won't prevail, Ross said.

"This was Power Authority money, negotiated in good faith," he said. "We're going to fight for our rights."

The State Power Authority wrote the coalition's rights into the contract, said Ross, who also is president of the Niagara Power Coalition.

The Niagara Power Coalition -- which includes Niagara County, the City of Niagara Falls, the towns of Niagara and Lewiston and three school districts -- will receive $3 million in Greenway money annually. Another $3 million will go to state parks; $2 million to Buffalo and Erie County; and $1 million for other ecological concerns.

That's part of a larger $2 billion package of payments and low-interest power to be given to Niagara River communities as part of the Power Project's relicensing.

>Not considered "pork"

"I want to make sure that we get a lot of bang for our Niagara County residents out of this 50-year agreement," Ross said.

"I certainly don't look at it as pork," he said of Niagara County's possible uses for Greenway money, "but as something to improve the quality of life of people that use those parks."

The Niagara River Greenway Commission, created last year by Gov. George E. Pataki, has to develop a definition for the Greenway and a plan to guide its development over the next 50 years. The Niagara communities' contract with the Power Authority says its Greenway-funded projects must be "consistent with" the plan but doesn't give the Greenway specific veto power.

Ross said the county may set up a grant program to provide seed money to projects proposed by communities not in the Niagara Power Coalition and county organizations.

Niagara Falls School Superintendent Carmen Granto said he was confident the rules for handling Greenway money will be worked out before the money starts flowing next year.

Granto said he believes once all the fuss has died down over plans for the Greenway money, "we'll be able to do what we want to do."

The district's top priority would be taking over historic buildings in DeVeaux Woods State Park, restoring the former boys school and using it for offices, Granto said. Other possibilities include athletic facility developments at Niagara Falls High School.

The DeVeaux plan is a complicated effort that will require state enabling legislation, because the district would seek a long-term lease on the property, Granto said. The district would pay to maintain the grounds and athletic fields to state park standards and keep the plot of old-growth forest nearby.

Unused district buildings would probably be sold to help finance the deal, which may cost between $6 million and $10 million, Granto said. Most of the project would be financed with Greenway money, he said. The district is considering borrowing against its Greenway revenue stream, which will amount to approximately $25 million over the 50-year term of the deal.

The Lewiston-Porter School District is planning for the long-term as well, with projects projected out over 20 to 30 years, said acting Superintendent Don W. Rappold.

The district plans to use Greenway money and the district's share of the Host Communities Fund, which will total at least $5 million annually, on projects that don't raise taxes.

First up would be improvements to the district's recreational facilities, like a fieldhouse, stands or bathrooms, Rappold said. The projects will share a "community orientation, with a focus on health and safety."

>Anello doesn't respond

The Niagara-Wheatfield School District hasn't finalized Greenway spending priorities, said business executive Kerin Dumphrey.

"One of the main things talked about has been athletic fields and facilities -- not a fieldhouse, maybe bathrooms or stadium-type stuff," Dumphrey said. Some of the improvements might be on land the district bought next to its middle school.

"We've already got plans to develop it, and this would help us," he said.

The Town of Lewiston doesn't have Greenway spending plans yet, said Supervisor Fred Newlin.

Niagara Falls Mayor Vince Anello did not respond to a request to comment.

The Town of Niagara would finish off its town park, Supervisor Steve Richards said. Plans include a building with athletic facilities and rooms for community groups, he said.

With a parking lot, picnic shelters and related work, he said the cost probably will come to $4 million to $6 million.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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