Established as a fisherman's paradise and strategically placed where the mighty Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario, the Village of Youngstown is returning to its roots, village officials say.
It has been years in the making, but land owned by the village on either side of the Youngstown Yacht Club at 491 Water St. is being turned into prime parkland for residents, tourists, boaters and anglers -- and a welcoming port for potential visitors ferried in from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
A test run last August was termed a great success for the one-day, cross-river ferry ride -- attracting more than 1,000 patrons -- and the study of a permanent plan is under way, Youngstown Mayor Neil C. Riordan said.
"We're examining the crafts, the funding and the infrastructure," Riordan said, adding that all involved U.S. and Canadian government parties have been "very supportive."
"There has been discussion of the possibility of specific event-based service this summer, with full service next year," he said, mentioning events at Artpark, Fort Niagara, Fort George and the Shaw Festival.
The mayor said the village is looking at boats holding 35 to 80 passengers, "who could bring bicycles and wheelchairs."
"I would definitely use a ferry if they had one here to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake," said Bob Kilroy of Olcott, who was recently walking his dog along Main Street.
His friend Dave McMahon, of Tonawanda, agreed.
"I know bike groups that would use this," said McMahon, a bicyclist. "Now it's 15 or 16 miles to go from here all the way around to the bridge and over to Fort Niagara.
"There are tourists on both sides," he said. "It would definitely work here. There are lots of possibilities."
The village will begin work after Labor Day on its new South Waterfront Park on the south side of the Yacht Club property, which is envisioned as a welcoming site for ferry patrons, said Robert Gallucci, a consulting engineer for the village.
The Village Board recently awarded the project to Yarussi Construction of Niagara Falls -- the low bidder -- and work is expected to be completed by mid-October.
"We'll be replacing these crooked concrete blocks and stabilizing this for a long time to come," Gallucci said as he recently walked along the river's edge. "We'll be replacing this single boat launch -- making it easier and safer to use. And we'll be creating a nice wide 'patio' area next to Youngstown Landing Marina [to the south of the new park].
"We're doing what we're supposed to do: encouraging private business to succeed and invest in the community."
Plans also call for numerous boat tie-ups, complete with electrical outlets; a shelter; bathrooms; and landscaping. Local officials envision a trolley available to take ferry passengers up the steep incline to stops in Youngstown and possibly Lewiston.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," said Ed Wojcik, owner of the Ontario House at 358 Main St. "I remember when we used to have something like this [called a 'water taxi'] long ago -- it ended in the early 1970s -- and you could take your bike across with you. It was good for business."
He's also happy to see the revitalization of the village properties along the river.
"Anything to make the waterfront more accessible to the people in the village," he said.
"I'm excited to use this myself to go to dinner in Niagara-on-the-Lake," said Cathy Pasquantino, owner of the Youngstown Village Diner, which overlooks the river from Main Street. "I'm absolutely all for it. I think it could be a big push for businesses in the area, and everybody I've talked to has been positive about it."
Six years ago, work was completed on Constitution Park, which begins on Main Street across from Faulkner Park, boasting a dark brown wooden gazebo, and ends at the river's edge. A wooden staircase leads down the hillside, offering a vista of the river from a platform created atop the stone foundation of what villagers believe was an 1800s trading post.
Cross the drive at the bottom of the stairs, and the park continues to the river, with new piers and a large boat slip offering a prime spot for the Niagara River Anglers Association to create a fish hatchery where 100,000 fingerlings are released each spring. The building with the glass-block windows houses the fishermen's equipment, as well as that of the Niagara Pioneer Soccer League.
Repaving the existing road between Constitution and South Waterfront parks will help "connect the parks very nicely," Riordan said. A revamped wooden stairway from Main Street to the South Waterfront Park also helps visitors reach the riverfront.
"We need to make the public aware that they have these public parks to come to," Riordan said.
He said the village's success in rehabbing virtually abandoned land for the waterfront portion of Constitution Park eased the way for the village to obtain similar grant money for the South Waterfront Park project.
Constitution Park cost about $300,000 in all, supported by state and federal grant money, along with some village money and in-kind services.
In addition, Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte secured a $22,000 "intermodal" grant to help complete the work.
Riordan again secured $180,000 in grant money for the South Waterfront Park project, combined with a village match, including in-kind services, for a combined value of about $360,000, he said.
A sign stands where the new park will take shape. It reads, "The Site of the John Young Store -- a general store built in 1808 known as the 'Red Store' after whom the village was named."
"It'll be a transformation you'll never believe," Riordan said as he looked at the crooked concrete blocks edging the riverfront. "We're really going back to our roots."