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Officials seek to save falls boats on U.S. side <br> Urge deal for access to Canada storage site

A day after the iconic Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. lost a bid to remain in the Canadian waters where it has operated for more than a century, officials here jockeyed to save the tour boat experience on the American side.

Local, state and federal officials Thursday worked to chart a plan for ensuring that an American tour boat service, which depends on access to boat-storage land on the Canadian side that will be leased in 2014 by California-based Hornblower Cruises & Events, will continue.

"One thing that's very clear is we have a vested interest in there being a tour boat operator on the U.S. side, so we're going to work very hard to facilitate that," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called for an agreement to preserve the Maid of the Mist business, and a state development official said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stands ready to intervene if needed.

State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said the first priority should be ensuring the Maid of the Mist operates this summer, though he also said a new bidding process on the American side could be a possibility. He plans to meet with State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey in Albany to discuss the issue.

"We want to do what we can do to get this up and running for this year," Grisanti said.

Christopher M. Glynn, Maid of the Mist president, has said his signature American business "may soon come to an end" because of its dependence on the Canadian storage land that will soon be leased by Hornblower. Though Glynn declined to comment Thursday on his company's options, it's clear local officials are waiting to see what path the family will choose before moving forward.

"The first thing to do is find out the Maid of the Mist strategy," Dyster said.

Officials are exploring what they can do to lobby the Canadian government to approve a subletting of the Hornblower land by Maid of the Mist. Niagara Parks Commission interim Chairwoman Janice Thomson said Hornblower could entertain requests to sublet, but the decision would have to be approved by the Parks Commission.

Hornblower, which operates dinner yacht cruises and ferry services around Ellis Island in New York City and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, hasn't said whether it would consider a subletting proposal.

"I think it's way too early to address that particular question," said Hornblower spokeswoman Tegan Firth. "We are certainly willing to speak with the Glynn family and New York State Parks going forward."

Some federal officials are encouraging that route.

Schumer said Thursday the Maid of the Mist needs to continue on the American side of the falls.

The senator, during a news conference in Cheektowaga, also said his office has reached out to the government in Canada and Hornblower Cruises to ask if they would allow the Maid of the Mist to continue to use the facilities on the Canadian side.

Schumer said it would be "a shame" and "wrong" if the American-side facilities have to close.

"If the ability to dry-dock, store and service the American-based boats on the Canadian side of the falls is eliminated, the tourism industry in Niagara Falls, N.Y., would be devastated," he wrote last month in a letter to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, also has reached out to Canadian officials on behalf of the Glynns.

Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development Corp., said Cuomo would become involved if his help was needed.

"It's a little premature to say the problem or the decision will have a lasting impact on Niagara Falls, but as necessary, the governor will be engaged to ensure this critical Niagara Falls experience will continue to operate," Hoyt said.

If the opportunity to sublet is denied, the Glynns could pursue other options.

They could sell their business, which has run tours to the base of the falls since the 1800s, to Hornblower. One official previously noted that a single company running operations on both sides of the falls would help logistics.

The Glynns also could stop their Canadian operation to protest the Niagara Parks Commission's decision this week to award Hornblower the contract to operate the falls tour boats on the Canadian side, starting in 2014. That would cost both the Parks Commission and the Glynns revenue.

Glynn said Wednesday it was uncertain whether his company would run the tours on the Canadian side this summer.

That could open the door for another company to bid on the American lease, though it's unclear whether Maid of the Mist's 40-year lease with New York State includes an opt-out clause for either party if the Maid of the Mist ceases to operate.

"I don't know who's going to bid on it with storage on the Canadian side," Grisanti said.

The most-talked-about option would be building storage facilities on the American side, but one official suggested that building storage garages, larger docking facilities and a filling station would be a major capital project.

The site for such an undertaking also is less than ideal, others have said, since the American side of the shore has few unoccupied flat areas that remain dry year-round.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation declined to comment on whether it would entertain such a proposal, saying it was "premature to speculate" about the future.

The Glynns have applied for a trademark to preserve the Maid of the Mist name.

Two people interviewed Thursday in downtown Niagara Falls don't want to see the iconic company vanish into the mist.

"It's one of the reasons we came back today," said Mike Small, whose family rode the boats five years ago and decided to return to the city from New Hampshire. "[Without it], I don't think we'd bother to make the trip to the U.S. side."

"It would be devastating," said Mark DiFrancesco, who runs a daredevil museum on Rainbow Boulevard. "That's a world-class attraction. People come to Niagara Falls just to ride a Maid of the Mist boat."

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com