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Waiting for the funds to start flowing; 'Shabby' park needs $85 million in repairs, is unlikely to get $15 million from Congress

WASHINGTON -- The New York Times may think Niagara Falls State Park is "shabby," but Uncle Sam hasn't exactly been rushing to town to clean it up.

The May 26 story in the Times that criticized the state park came three years after Congress created a National Heritage Area for the Falls region. The congressional action spurred great hope that the area finally would get some strong federal help in making the most of the Falls park and its other tourist attractions.

But that federal commission just got off the ground late last year -- halfway through its congressionally chartered existence.

What's more, because of the delays and the tightness of the federal budget, funding for the heritage area is likely to fall many million dollars short of the $15 million authorized by Congress -- at a time when the state park alone needs $85 million in repairs.

And while members of the 17-member Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission say they think they will have a strong impact in developing a regional tourism plan, there's some debate about whether the commission should be a leader or just a facilitator of tourism in the Falls region.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer thinks it should be a leader.

"I urge the Commission to put a major emphasis on [a plan] for rehabilitation of Niagara Falls State Park," the Democratic senator said in a letter last week to Thomas A. Chambers, the Niagara University history professor who heads the commission.

That plan, due next year, will be the heart and soul of the commission's work. It will lay out ways to promote the area's natural and historic assets, from the Falls to Fort Niagara, as a unified and nationally significant destination.

Through no fault of its own, the commission got a late start in developing that plan.

President George W. Bush signed the bill creating the heritage area in May 2008, but his administration did nothing for the next eight months to put the commission in place, noted Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

After President Obama took office in January 2009, many of the entities chartered with appointing the commissioners took their time in doing so.

"All of us kept asking: 'Why is this taking so long?' " Dyster said.

And once the commissioners were appointed, the U.S. Department of the Interior took upward of two years to approve the appointments.

Dennis Reidenbach, Northeast region director of the National Park Service, said he did not know exactly why the approval process took so long.

But Peter Benton of Heritage Strategies, a consultant working on the heritage area plan, said the White House also had to review the appointees.

"This was not Washington's first priority," Benton added.

The delay cost the Niagara planning effort money as well as time.

Annual federal set-asides for heritage areas in the planning phase have been running at about $150,000 a year. That's about $200,000 less than heritage areas can expect per year once the planning is done and they're up and operating, several sources said.

More importantly, though, the commission won't receive anywhere near the $15 million Congress authorized for its five-year life span.

That's because under the two-step federal budgeting process, the first step -- the authorization -- is a top limit for funding. Appropriations -- the actual money that Congress sets aside -- are often far lower than authorizations, especially in tight budget times like these.

Leaders of the commission express no great worry, though, that the yawning gap between the money promised and the money to be received is so wide.

And even with the delays in getting started, they say the commission will have no problem delivering its plan by early next year.

"It just means that a lot of the work has to be compressed," said Chambers, the commission chairman.

Benton, the consultant, got a head start on the work because the National Park Service contracted with him even before the commission was in place.

And the commissioners think that with Benton's help, they can do something that's never been done before: pull together Niagara's great tourism assets to market and promote them as one.

"I believe that now that we're together, we can do some great stuff," said Jeffrey D. Williams, partner in Lewiston Management Group and Niagara Falls Properties and the commission's vice chairman.

What's at issue now, though, is the exact scope of the commission's mission.

In other words, what should the commission do about what the Times travel article called "the shabby, underfinanced state park" in the Falls?

Schumer thinks the commission can push the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to take the park to a new level.

"The commission is doing an outstanding job, and [its] work gives us a unique opportunity to address issues at the Niagara Falls State Park," he said. "As the commission moves forward with its planning efforts, jump-starting the state park and creating a plan to make it attractive to potential tourists must be the top priority."

Putting the park first "certainly would be something worth considering," Chambers said.

But other sources warned there's only so much a commission with a modest budget can do to address problems at a park that's run by the state -- and that, according to State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, needs $85 million in repairs.

"My initial reaction is: Do we even need yet another commission?" said State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, who worries about the potential for a "too many cooks" problem regarding the park's future.

Maziarz long has maintained that the main problem with the park is not its direction, but its funding mechanism. As the state's most popular park, it draws in huge revenues that are now directed to other parks. That is why Maziarz has long pushed a proposal to dedicate some of the park's profits to its own uses.

Schumer acknowledged that resources remain an overwhelming issue at the park but said that the commission can set a broader vision that the park can follow while he and other public officials seek money to improve it.

"These days with a tough budget it will be harder, but we will do our best," Schumer said.

Meanwhile, though, Schumer has to work on legislation extending the commission's life, given that its current authorization expires in 2013.

"I think we can get it renewed," he said. "We will work to renew it so they won't run out of time."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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