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Davis Park hits critical juncture Whether 388 acres will be bustling or barren depends on overdue state-local accord

The poorly maintained and mostly unused 388-acre Joseph Davis State Park has reached a turning point as it approaches its 50th anniversary in the coming year.

If local and state officials can agree on a $10 million improvement program, the largely undeveloped park at the Lewiston-Porter town line could be turned into a gem of a recreation and conservation area.

Or it could be ignored, lapsing into a wildlife sanctuary rarely visited by many of the millions of people who live within a one-hour drive of the park on Lower River Road, along the Niagara River.

The Lewiston Town Board and its subsidiary, Joseph Davis State Park Local Development Corp., are leading the battle to revitalize the Joseph Davis site for family outings, picnics, camping, playgrounds, maybe a swimming pool, better boating and fishing facilities, a visitors center and other amenities.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the park, is encouraging the town to at least cut some of the wild grass, clean up debris and maintain access under a 10-year lease.

State Parks Commissioner Rose H. Harvey and key members of her staff have agreed to talk with local leaders by telephone conference call at least once every couple of weeks to discuss what can be done with Joseph Davis Park in coming years. The talks have been encouraged by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.

So far, Town Supervisor Steven L. Reiter has been given permission to tear out charcoal pits and drinking fountains that were unused, tilted and bent. But he hasn't made much headway on the town's hope of acquiring ownership of the park or at least getting a 40-year lease to operate it.

"We have reached a crossroads in plans for Joseph Davis Park," Reiter said. "The state's inactivity is costing us money. Why is the state taking so long to decide on the future of this park after Lewiston has taken it upon itself to make it an asset to the entire region?"

For one thing, the pothole-pocked parking lot needs to be repaved, but the Town Board doesn't want to spend any local taxpayer money on parkland that it doesn't own and on which its lease expires in less than a decade.

If ownership could be transferred -- maybe for $1 -- or if the town could get a long-term lease, the supervisor said, maintenance and operation wouldn't cost town taxpayers anything. It would be paid for by Greenway funds from the New York Power Authority through its relicensing agreement for the nearby Niagara Power Project.

Reiter said progress toward that goal has been so slow that it's "glacial."

"We just want to bring the park up to the point where it can be used," said Councilman Michael J. Marra, who joined the supervisor in recent talks with state officials.

The state's official website points out that Joseph Davis State Park "is operated by the Town of Lewiston through a partnership agreement" with the state. It refers questions about park operations to local officials.

It says the park "has facilities for a wide variety of recreational activities. The terrain is generaly flat, with fields, woodlands and ponds. Anglers can fish for largemouth bass in the pond near the park entrance or for a variety of freshwater fish from the fishing dock on the lower Niagara River.

"The park also has a nature trail, as well as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling trails and a 27-hole Frisbee disc golf course."

The town's point men in dealing with the state Office of Parks are Neil Nolf, chairman of Joseph Davis State Park Local Development Corp., and Louis Giardino, president and chief executive officer of CEA International, management consultant to the local development corporation.

"We've done a good job improving the conditions" at the park, Nolf said, but Giardino said that state action on environmental issues and other concerns are moving slowly and that talks sometimes have been "frustrating."

About 30,000 people used to visit the park annually until it fell into disrepair a couple of years ago because of the state's budget crisis. More recent figures are not available.

The Office of Parks said Joseph Davis was established in 1963, but only 19 of its 388 acres have been developed; 66 acres are "managed," and the remaining 303 acres are "natural." It includes a bird conservation area with 31 acres of underwater area and 1,400 feet of frontage on the Niagara River, with 1,200 feet of public access.

Among development proposals that have received little public discussion is a suggestion by local historian and retired teacher Paul Gromosiak for a Native American Museum that would occupy a large section of the park.

"The Native American Museum will focus on the history of the people who lived in the Niagara region [while] the western third of the park can be kept for recreation, picnicking, fishing, boating and Frisbee golf," Gromosiak wrote.

He said an Ancient Seneca Village would focus on native agriculture, language, music, religion, mythology, conflict, hunting, construction, clothing, clans, fishing, festivals and other activities.

"The village must be surrounded by hardwood forest as would have been found along the shore of the Niagara River in prehistoric times," the historian said. "Authenticity is absolutely important. Visitors must experience the real thing, a trip back in time, before the arrival of the Europeans to North America."

Gromosiak is widely credited with first suggesting the development of a Niagara Experience Center for visitors to downtown Niagara Falls, an idea that has caught on with local development officials and is intended to play a big role in the Niagara National Heritage Area Commission's recommendations to preserve cultural and natural resources along the Niagara River from Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario.

The Niagara Experience Center will be "a world-class regional attraction [featuring] the latest in impressive 'experience design' and yet be grounded in scholarship and authenticity," according to the Heritage Area Commission. "It will be the focal point of a re-envisioned downtown" in Niagara Falls.