After years of neglect, one of the world's most popular tourist destinations has the full attention of New York State.
That means $25 million in much-needed improvements to Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest in the nation. It also signals, officials said, a return to the principles of Frederick Law Olmsted -- who designed the park -- and a pledge to never let it become neglected again.
The new railings, repaved paths, restored plantings and repaired bridges come one year after the park was criticized by a New York Times travel writer and a nonprofit agency for its lack of maintenance and worn-out appearance.
"Niagara Falls can't look shabby," State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said Tuesday at a news conference in the park. "It's the most visible park in our state system, it's the most popular, and we needed to address this issue."
As Harvey outlined a complete makeover of the park's most popular areas, park officials called the investment the most significant since the park's creation in 1885.
"It's going to transform the landscape," regional State Parks Director Mark W. Thomas said. "Pathways, rail systems, lighting -- areas that define the park experience -- they're like 40 years old, and they really need replacing. The park will reflect the grandeur of its surroundings."
The state has responded to the criticism with an ambitious, detailed landscape plan to begin in the fall. Some of the improvements, worth $16 million, will begin then, while the other $9 million in upgrades will come when more funding is secured.
"We're going to move as fast as we can without interrupting the visit," Harvey said.
The plan focuses on the basics -- railings, walkways, viewing areas -- with funding sprinkled throughout the entire park.
New railings, walkways and plants will be installed at Prospect Point, Terrapin Point and Stedman's Bluff on Goat Island overlooking Luna Island, and new curbs will help distinguish walkways from grassy areas.
Walking paths will be widened on some shoreline trails of Goat Island, and paved overlook areas will be installed. Luna Island, sandwiched between the brinks of the Bridal Veil and American falls, will be redesigned in a rustic manner with more plantings and boulders. Pedestrian bridges on Goat Island and Luna Island will be repaired or replaced.
The Three Sisters Islands will get new landscaping, staircases and paving, and new trees, tables and paving will be installed at the Cave of the Winds concession area. A replacement for the deteriorating American Falls bridge will be designed, and improvements to the park's water, storm sewer and electrical systems will be made.
After the $9 million is secured in later years, the forest on Goat Island will be restored with only native plants, and a new walkway will be installed beside the roadway on the island. In addition, mowed lawn areas will be reduced and native plantings restored to the Goat Island shoreline trails, and a small restroom will be constructed on Three Sisters.
"We are going to be prepared to give [visitors] an enjoyable and acceptable experience here in the greatest state park in New York State," said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, who pushed for the changes, along with former parks supervisor and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.
The project for the first time aims to reduce the amount of paved surfaces and lawn areas in certain parts of the park and calls for improvements to be made with recycled or sustainable materials.
Park officials see those steps, along with a series of newly unveiled solar panels on the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, as keys to redesigning the landscape, as much as modern demands allow, in line with the principles of park designers Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
"Its creation was the most visionary act of park creation in American history," Harvey said. "It was the impetus for Yosemite [National Park]. We need to have its legacy show its natural wonder, and we need to show this can be America's most visible, most important park in the past, in the present and in the future."
Under a separate project funded by the New York State Power Authority, the rehabilitation of gorge trails and crumbling staircases near Devil's Hole and Whirlpool Bridge will be completed in the same time frame.
Those improvements will build on other developments in the area, Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said, and also draw others to the "tremendous asset" that is the Niagara Gorge rim.
Park officials and politicians of all stripes have credited Harvey and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with the renewed emphasis on Niagara Falls State Park.
"She gets it," Dyster said of Harvey. "She's going to be a tremendous person to work with, and I think it's going to make the Western New York-to-Albany connection work better than it has before, in the revitalization of parks here in Western New York."
When state officials were criticized last year for the park's deterioration, Harvey said the park needed about $85 million in upgrades. She did not specify Tuesday whether the remaining $60 million would come, but local park officials said the new funds would lay the groundwork for those to come.
Funding for the park improvements will come primarily from Niagara River Greenway money from the Power Authority. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority officials also were credited Tuesday.
"The $25 million is not going to do it all -- it will set us up for the future," Harvey said. "But next fall, we will see the beginning of a very different place in Niagara Falls."
GRAPHIC: POLISHING A NEGLECTED JEWEL
> Improvements to be made this fall ($16 million):
* New railings, walkways and plants at Prospect Point, Terrapin Point and Stedman's Bluff
* Widening of walking paths on Goat Island
* Rustic redesign of Luna Island and repair or replacement of pedestrian bridge
* Rehabilitation of Goat Island pedestrian bridge
* New landscaping, staircases and paving at Three Sisters Islands
* New trees and tables at Cave of the Winds concession area
> Improvements to be made in the future ($9 million)
* Restored forest, new walkway on Goat Island
* New railings and paving on Goat Island gorge rim trails
* Rehabilitation of gorge trails and staircases near Devil's Hole and Whirlpool Bridge (separate project)
* Reduce lawn, restore native plantings to Goat Island shoreline trails
* Construction of restroom on Three Sisters Islands