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Circle project is center of controversy Critics oppose use of taxpayer money for art celebrating centennial of U.S.-Canada treaty

A $435,000 plan to commission a public art piece for a Rainbow Boulevard traffic circle to commemorate the centennial of a treaty governing the waters between the United States and Canada is drawing criticism that it is too expensive at a time when the city is struggling to pay for the basics.

"It might be a priority in some people's eyes, but for the majority of the residents of this city, it's not," said Niagara Falls Councilman Robert Anderson Jr.

Supporters of the project say the traffic circle at Rainbow Boulevard and First Street is an important gateway outside a planned $2.5 million visitors center and three multimillion dollar hotel projects.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster called the proposal a one-time "special expenditure" to celebrate a hundred-year event.

"We're talking about putting something up there that is a public monument and that is public art," Dyster said. "So we're trying to spend money in order to create something that is going to be of lasting value, that's going to be durable and that's going to be low-maintenance."

The centennial of the Boundary Waters Treaty will be celebrated this year in Niagara Falls on both sides of the border.

The project to create a monument to the event has already received approval from the Niagara River Greenway Commission and the committee that oversees the use of relicensing funds from the New York Power Authority. Those approvals will allow the city to use $335,000 of its greenway funds for the project.

The proposed project budget also includes $50,000 in city funds and $50,000 from the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.

The Niagara Falls City Council has unanimously approved the application to use greenway funds, but has not yet voted to allocate city money to the project.

"I don't support using any taxpayers money for this at all," said Councilman Sam Fruscione. "The greenway money is fine. That's what the greenway money is for, so you can do projects without using the taxpayers' cash."

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, wrote a letter last month to one of USA Niagara Development's board members in which he said he was "shocked" to learn of the project details.

The project budget calls for $50,000 for the artist selection process, up to $125,000 for the artists' fee for production and $75,000 for site work, installation and lighting. Design and construction oversight is estimated at $50,000. Another $135,000 will be used for landscaping, irrigation and sidewalk interpretive display panels.

"This is part of USA Niagara's 'development strategy' for downtown Niagara Falls?" Maziarz wrote in the letter. "This project is going to bring tourists into town and help our economy and our residents?"

Maziarz's district does not include Niagara Falls, but he is listed on USA Niagara's Web site as being a member of the agency's advisory council.

USA Niagara President Christopher Schoepflin said the project is appropriate to "celebrate and honor 100 years of shared waters between the United States and Canada."

"The circle will be a prominent urban place on the greenway, not unlike Niagara or Lafayette squares in Buffalo, serving as a gateway to both Niagara Falls State Park and the new official Niagara Falls visitors center, in the second-most visited place in all of New York State," Schoepflin said.

The traffic circle to be renamed Centennial Circle -- was constructed as part of a $4.2 million Department of Transportation project completed in 2006 to overhaul Rainbow Boulevard.

But a single pine tree planted in the circle after it was completed was derided as ill-proportioned and poorly maintained before the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. agreed to care for the circle's landscaping.

"Prior to that, it was just a complete eyesore. It was actually an embarrassment to the roundabout," Fruscione said. "It was Charlie Brown's Christmas tree."

Construction on the new visitors center near the traffic circle is slated to begin this year. Officials hope to install the Boundary Waters Treaty monument in the fall.

"It's a centennial," Dyster said. "We only get one shot at this."

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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