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New panel seeks tourism, heritage plan ; Federally appointed commission to coordinate Niagara County work

One member of a new federally appointed panel says its work could bring better cooperation in efforts to boost regional tourism.

Jeffrey D. Williams, acting vice chairman of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission, said he sees the panel's role as one of bringing together tourism and heritage planning efforts in Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Porter and Youngstown.

"I believe, if it's done well and if we do our job, we can really bring some of the parochial interests under one umbrella to help the entire area in a common way," Williams said.

Work continues on creating a Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. The commission, which had been designated to draw up a such plan, will hold its second meeting on Wednesday.

The commission was designated by Congress in May 2008. The planned heritage area covers Niagara River communities below the falls. Sites deemed to be "thematically related" in Erie and Niagara counties also are included.

Here's what the National Parks Service says about national heritage areas on its website for the Niagara Falls area:

*One of the goals is to encourage public-private partnerships to create initiatives for residents and visitors.

*Regional resources are pooled to promote tourism and economic development.

*The broad regional distinction signifies the region's importance to American history and culture.

Commission appointments had to be vetted by both the Parks Service and the White House, said Deborah L. Conway, superintendent of the Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, east of Syracuse. Conway is a commission member and the Parks Service's liaison to the commission.

The initial set of nominations was forwarded to Washington, D.C., in the early part of September 2009, she said, and it took about a year to vet and finalize the candidates.

Under the current law, the commission will expire in May 2013, five years after the legislation went into effect.

The Parks Service is considering whether it will ask for new federal legislation that would extend the commission's existence another five years, Conway said.

A consulting team for the commission has been hired through a bidding process run by the Parks Service. The team includes several firms and organizations: John Milner Associates, which has offices in several states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts; Heritage Strategies of Pennsylvania; Bergmann Associates, which has offices in Buffalo, across the state and in several other states; and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Heritage Tourism Office.

The commission, assisted by the consultants, is tasked with writing a management plan for the heritage area. The plan must be done in about a year, which was described as an "aggressive" but "reasonable" timetable by consultant Peter C. Benton of Heritage Strategies at the commission's first meeting.

Under federal law, the plan must be completed no later than three years after funding became available. The delay in seating the commissioners combined with the contractual framework with the consultants factored in the remaining term.

Conway's work in securing the consultant before the commission was in place saved the overall effort, according to Williams.

Because of the delay, Conway moved ahead with lining up the consultant and spending the available funding. Otherwise the whole thing "would have disappeared," Williams said.

The commission has been allocated $298,000 so far. Of that, about $212,000 has been paid to the consulting team, covering all the costs outlined in the contract, Williams said.

"We have no more consulting costs," he said.

An allocation of $83,600 to cover the commission's potential staff costs was transferred to Parks & Trails New York. If that funding hadn't been transferred, it would have been lost, and the commission would not have been able to spend it, Conway said.

Parks & Trails New York, an Albany-based nonprofit, is the agent that would dispense pay for any staff. The money has been placed in a "cooperative account," Conway said.

The commission is expected to receive $150,000 a year in federal funding until a plan is in place. Although it is eligible for a maximum annual allocation of $1 million, it's unlikely that much will ever be appropriated in one year, a Parks Service official said last month.

The commission may have 17 members, though only 15 have been officially appointed, along with some alternates.

Two seats on the commission have not been filled -- one set aside for a representative of the New York Power Authority and another for the Tuscarora Nation.

The commission's meeting on Wednesday is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the Niagara Power Project Power Vista, 5777 Lewiston Road, Lewiston.

The heritage area's website is www.nps.gov/niha.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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