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Flight of Five discussion on deck

Plans to restore two of the Flight of Five locks on the Erie Canal by 2014 will be discussed at a public forum Monday.

The Lockport Locks Heritage District Committee will host the event at 7 p.m. in the History Center of Niagara, 215 Niagara St.

Chairman David R. Kinyon said last week that funding is in place to return two of the five 19th century limestone canal locks, shut down for nearly 100 years, to working order.

He said the state Department of Transportation has agreed to release $2.3 million it was holding for the project. The money came from a federal grant lined up in 2005 by former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds.

Kinyon said the DOT was hanging onto the money "until we were able to identify the remainder of the capital funding."

When the money was obtained, the plan was to restore all five locks, numbered 67 through 71 on the old canal system, at once.

But because of the difficulty in lining up the estimated $10 million cost, the local tourism panel decided to seek a phased project.

Design work, hydraulic testing and other preparations have been going on for several years.

"We've spent almost $1 million, and we have nothing to show for it," Mayor Michael W. Tucker said. "Once we do these two locks and people can see what's going on, it'll be easier to get the rest of [the funding]."

Though total restoration remains the goal, even the phased project should draw more tourists, said R. Charles Bell, city planning and development director.

"I don't think two [locks] is quite the same punch as all five, but it will be a boost," Bell said.

The locks to be restored are Locks 69 and 70, which are the middle lock and the second one from the bottom of the five stairlike locks.

"Thanks to the intercession of Congresswoman [Kathleen C.] Hochul and a more cooperative attitude from the Canal Corp., the DOT is satisfied we have a viable plan," Kinyon said.

Permits are needed from the state Canal Corp., which owns the locks, and the DOT.

Also, Kinyon said, it hasn't been decided whether the city or the Canal Corp. will award the construction contract, bidding for which has yet to begin.

But Kinyon said he believes the work, which must be done during the off-season, when the canal water is at its lowest, could begin shortly after Jan. 1. He said the project would not be ready to open in 2013.

"We're hoping to have a boat that would navigate between the two locks for demonstration purposes, without passengers," he said.

Kinyon said the committee hasn't given up on the original vision, which was to have a boat pass through all five locks, showing tourists how the Erie Canal originally worked.

The original Lockport locks were two flights of five, one eastbound and one westbound. The 1825 locks were wooden, but they were replaced by stone locks between 1838 and 1849.

One flight was removed nearly a century ago, when the current steel locks were built; they opened in 1914.

The surviving flight has since been used to carry water displaced by the opening and closing of the steel locks.

Sediment that has built up over the years in Lock 69 will be removed as part of the restoration project. The project will install new lock gates, operated by long balance beams, to open and close the old locks.

Locks 69 and 70 "represent the easiest ones to work on. There are no structures in the canal that obstruct the restoration," Kinyon said.

Also on tap Monday is an early look at the construction of a second city-owned marina on the north bank of the canal at West Genesee Street.

Construction of the marina is several years away, Kinyon said.