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Opportunity knocks, and it is green

There's a $450 million opportunity slipping by.

It could be the thing that helps transform this region into a place better known for its beautiful shoreline than for decaying steel plants and Chemical Row.

Or it could be just another thing we look back at in 50 years and wonder why.

Folks from Buffalo to Youngstown have been given the resources -- $9 million a year for 50 years -- to create a "world-class corridor of places, parks and landscapes" along the 36-mile stretch from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

This is no Bass Pro Shops. It's no silver bullet. It's real money committed to a vision to create a system of parks, trails and other amenities that would connect communities and create more ways for people to enjoy the waterfront.

For years, we've concentrated on a 21-acre zone in Buffalo's Erie Canal Harbor that we hope one day will be developed with shops, restaurants and commercial development.

But while the region's been focused on what's the next best thing for the slice of waterfront outside HSBC Arena, the clock is ticking for the Niagara River Greenway.

The money is flowing, and those who make the decisions about how it should be spent have been dividing up the funds now for four years. More than 70 projects from Wheatfield to Grand Island have already been pitched, started or completed. New parks have opened. Trails have been cleared. Ecological projects are under way.

But there's a disconnect between a 163-page plan that laid out the vision for the Niagara River Greenway and those given the power to spend the money.

State lawmakers created the Niagara River Greenway Commission in 2005 to develop a regional system of parks that could connect the region to the river.

But the commission was given no control over how the money would actually be spent. Instead, it simply reviews projects for "consistency" with the greenway plan. And whether projects are deemed "consistent" or not, they still can get funding.

The $450 million comes from a settlement for the relicensing of the New York Power Authority's Niagara Power Project, and communities that signed the agreement insisted they have the final say over funding. As a result, there are four separate committees that decide how the money should be spent.

Here's a sampling of projects that have been given the go-ahead: a dog park in Lewiston; a one-time shot of funding for summer programs in Artpark; money to celebrate the Boundary Waters Treaty.

And there are at least five "comfort stations" -- more commonly known as bathrooms -- on the list of greenway projects. It's not that bathrooms aren't needed in parks. But a bunch of new restrooms and playgrounds just doesn't add up to the "world-class greenway" officials set out to create.

A $450 million opportunity doesn't come along every day.

"Most fundamentally," the plan states, "the Greenway is a means to forge better connections across the region."

Look across the river, and you'll see what long-term planning across communities can achieve. Ontario's Niagara River Recreational Trail extends from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie, making it possible to ride your bike, walk or just enjoy the view along 35 miles of water.

On this side of the border, we're still suffering from the type of fragmented thinking in which Erie and Niagara counties might as well be on separate planets.

We can look back in 2057 and marvel at the community vision and cooperation it took to transform our waterfront from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario into a "world-class" system of interconnected parks, trails and waterfront amenities.

Or we can wonder why we frittered it away on pork barrel projects.


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