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Input of public sought on historic Falls center

The public will have a chance this week to provide input on the much-anticipated Underground Railroad Interpretive Center planned for the 1863 U.S. Customs House.

Public forums to discuss potential themes for the historical center will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Earl W. Brydges Public Library, 1425 Main St. Officials hope the center will highlight the region's connection to the Underground Railroad, in which slaves fled the South for freedom in Canada. Harriet Tubman is thought to have crossed into Canada over the Niagara River's former Suspension Bridge.

Renovation of the Customs House and the planning of the Underground Railroad center comprise the first phase of the three-step, $44 million project to turn the Customs House near the Whirlpool International Bridge into an international transportation hub.

"It's going to be a world-class, incredible interpretive center," said Kevin Cottrell, the city's project manager for the center. "The premise is heritage tourism, but at same time, the premise has always been, 'How do you lure the visitor into the city core?' "

Cottrell and Bill Bradberry, chairman of the 17-member Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, hope the public session will stimulate community members with historical ties to share their stories and ideas.

Bradberry said the history includes people of all colors, citing the area's Quaker population as a group that lobbied leaders for an end to slavery.

"The area is just ripe with relevant history that led up to the development of the Civil War," he said. "I suspect that we will have people who originally may have fled the deep South and gone up into Canada, and they don't even know that they have this history."

Consulting firms have been hired to help research and compile the region's history as it relates to the Underground Railroad. That consultant will fact-check the research until it is "bulletproof," Bradberry said. A previous dispute arose after someone questioned whether Tubman actually crossed into Canada at the former Suspension Bridge at the city's edge.

The public meetings are part of the first step of the center. Development of a management plan and the design and creation of exhibits will follow the current step, Cottrell said.

Cottrell said he hopes visitors of the exhibit will be able to walk halfway across the Whirlpool Bridge and view the terrain Tubman saw on her journey to freedom.

"That is the one thing I know needs to happen," he said. "That's exciting."