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City seeks to be outer harbor player; Mayor cites experience operating marina, but state agency may oppose idea

The Brown administration wants in on negotiations over the future of the outer harbor and points to its successful operation of Erie Basin Marina as evidence of its expertise in developing waterfront property.

"The city is interested," Mayor Byron W. Brown said in an interview with The Buffalo News this week. "We certainly would like to be involved in the conversation."

Brown said City Hall has decades of experience in leasing the city-owned marina to private developers and is now exploring a transfer of all or part of the outer harbor from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority -- its longtime owner.

However, the city initiative may encounter opposition. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a state agency, has been charged with developing the harbor area on the north side of the Buffalo River and is mentioned as potential successor to the NFTA as owner of the outer harbor. Howard A. Zemsky, incoming NFTA chairman and a confidante of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said he welcomes the city's interest but hints at a future role for the harbor agency.

"There is something to be said about contiguous parcels of the inner harbor and outer harbor being planned in a way that's coherent," he said. "But we'll never turn our back on having conversations."

Meanwhile, the mayor suggested the city could buy the land for $1 or tap into settlement money from the New York Power Authority to complete the deal. City Hall resources, he said, can be dedicated to developing the outer harbor, while the experience of leasing Erie Basin Marina to private operators could be applied toward running the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach.

In addition, multimillion-dollar projects to dredge the marina and rebuild its breakwater are eligible for financing through the city's capital budget, according to City Hall officials. "We believe, because we have the resources of the Public Works and Planning departments, we would do a good job in not only managing but developing," Brown said.

"Primarily, we're interested in Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor, but we're certainly willing to look at the entire thing," he added. "The city has demonstrated its ability to bring in resources for major public works or infrastructure projects."

The mayor noted the city has worked closely and successfully with the harbor agency on inner harbor projects.

"But we do feel the city has more staff capability in its Public Works and Planning departments that could be more expedient," he said. "Also, I think the principal mission of ECHDC is the inner harbor and Canalside areas. I'm just a little concerned about moving the focus." Brown also said the city has demonstrated its expertise in projects like returning cars to Main Street and managing development of the Webster Block near First Niagara Center, which some had suggested should also be under harbor agency control.

All of the recent discussions stem from the NFTA's 2011 decision to exit the waterfront development business. The authority in February then designated Bear Development Group to buy and redevelop Gallagher Beach and the adjacent marina, the second largest on Lake Erie with about 1,000 slips.

But after several snags developed in negotiations with Bear owner David Pfeiffer, especially over how to maintain public access to private lands, the NFTA said it was "taking a step back" and now aims to transfer the land to some other public entity.

So far, stakeholders such as Sam Hoyt, interim chairman of the harbor development agency, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are welcoming the city's involvement in the conversation.

Hoyt said all entities involved "have the same goal" of developing the waterfront and maintaining public access.

"We welcome a discussion with the city, NFTA, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and anybody who expresses interest in the property," Hoyt said. "Ultimately, it needs to be decided which entity makes the most sense for stewardship and development of the outer harbor."

Higgins also agreed the city should be involved in all conversations regarding the property and welcomes its participation.

"The test for our community is what public entity is in a position to bring that property to its highest and best use," he said, adding that the marina and Gallagher Beach have already become major destinations and could be enhanced even more.

"Gallagher Beach should be a swimming beach, and the restaurant at the Small Boat Harbor could be expanded to three or four stories," he said.

Higgins noted that Dug's Dive, leased from the NFTA, realized $1 million in sales last year and could see four times that amount in the future.

"I absolutely and unequivocally insist, with every fiber of my being, that any money from the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach be invested in public access there in perpetuity," he said, adding he believes a transfer of ownership will be completed by this time next year.

The NFTA and its predecessor agency, the Niagara Frontier Port Authority, have owned the waterfront land since 1956. The land was under the jurisdiction of the City of Buffalo for many years before that.

Eight years ago, the city settled a lawsuit with the NFTA over the land, and the city gave up its reversionary rights. That paved the way for the planned sale of 80 acres of land to the state, which intended to convert it into a state park. The plan never materialized.