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Falls deserves better than it's received

It's no wonder some ugly descriptions have been swirling around Niagara Falls in recent weeks.

"Shabby." "Eyesore." "Rust Belt ruin."

It's little surprise because the natural wonder has long been treated like a beautiful harlot -- used and abused for gain, then cast off when troubles begin.

We've sucked the energy out of its waters and sent the cheap power on its way. We've hawked boat tours, T-shirts and elevator rides and spent the profits to fix up other parks. And we've slapped its image -- and the worldwide recognition that comes with it -- on everything from license plates to commercials promoting the state.

There's a curious mindset in New York when it comes to our most famous natural asset, and it's not unlike those early hucksters who put up walls and charged visitors to peep at the waterfalls.

Like those peddlers, the state still views Niagara Falls as a money-maker, a cash cow from which it takes much more than it gives back.

Niagara Falls State Park is rare in the struggling state park system in that it generates more revenue than it costs to operate. It draws the most visitors of any state park and yet the cost of needed repairs has mounted to an estimated $85 million.

That's a lot of money in a state that has had to shut down parks. But look at it this way.

Just two blocks outside of Niagara Falls State Park is another money-maker for New York. Seneca Niagara Casino has sent $253 million in slot machine revenue to the state -- not including the local share -- since it opened in 2002.

That would have been enough to fix the needed repairs in Niagara Falls State Park nearly three times over.

Or it could have been used to tackle the seemingly forgotten $100 million dream to build a world-class museum and welcome center that would link Niagara Falls to regional attractions.

But the state's share of slots revenue from the Falls casino wasn't spent with any long-term vision for the iconic attraction. It was sucked right down the state budget drain.

There are state workers in Niagara Falls who care deeply about the future of the park and the city, and there has been real -- but slow -- progress made in downtown Niagara Falls with the help of the USA Niagara Development Corp.

Hotels have been renovated. A new conference center was built. New restaurants have opened.

But the overwhelming impression left with visitors to the American side is still of boarded-up storefronts, vacant land and a state park with crumbling pathways and worn-out railings.

The firestorm over the park's condition was kicked off by a travel piece in the New York Times that called it "shabby" and "underfinanced." The debate continued when the Alliance for New York State Parks pointed out that a temporary cover on a bridge to Goat Island has become an "eyesore."

Two weeks later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration responded with a pledge of sorts to come up with a "comprehensive, long-term plan to identify priorities for improvements to Niagara Falls State Park."

It shouldn't have taken this long to realize this is a world wonder worth the investment.


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