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You can see the summer from here; Visions of Buffalo's outer harbor could transform this region into a 21st century powerhouse

In just a few short days, Memorial Day weekend will be upon us and Western New Yorkers will once again joyously leap across the threshold into another magnificent summer season.

As we break out the bathing suits and sandals and lather up with suntan lotion, we have plenty of reason to head on down to the emerging and boisterous Buffalo waterfront. Public access and engagement have quickly become one of our most profound connections to the season, to our mixed cultures and to the spectacular sweet water seas that help characterize our area as a global level paradise.

Now is a great time for each of us to think about the real value of outer harbor development. What we do here, and who does it, will significantly impact the very consequential futures of our regional economy, environment and quality of life.

Planning and development strategies are now moving into final stages at various levels of government. Decades of work -- ranging from the long-defunct Horizons Commission to the very alive City of Buffalo Comprehensive Plan, Queen City Hub, Queen City Waterfront and the exciting new Buffalo Green Code focusing on unified form-based zoning -- are going to create and enforce policy-level decisions about our most valuable public asset.

Of great consequence and designed to inform the Green Code, a partnership formed by the City of Buffalo, New York State, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper has focused on three Brownfield Opportunity Areas (BOA) in the city. One is the Buffalo Harbor BOA, which includes the outer harbor.

This area is considered a brownfield because of the legacy of generations of pollution from industry and urban impacts. The BOA program is designed to help return dormant brownfield sites back to productive use and environmental quality. The partners emphasize that the BOA process will contribute to the city's revitalization. Once completed, the land use and built form components of the study will be included in the Green Code.

What is the opportunity for the region? Our waterfront, which comprises parts of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River and the Niagara River, is uniquely situated on one of the planet's most consequential and valuable natural resources.

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on earth. Together they hold more than 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 90 percent of the U.S. supply of freshwater comes from the Great Lakes.

We must find ways to protect and restore clean water if future generations are going to have a sustainable quality of life. Recognizing this, and working to help educate about this resource, is a huge step toward global stewardship and leadership. This is part of our opportunity.

Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education has engaged thousands of the region's youth in Great Lakes learning on the iconic tall ship Spirit of Buffalo. Executive Director Kate Mini Hilliman says the water is one of our most valuable, and probably one of our most misunderstood, assets.

"We live in a city where many people have never actually been on the water, especially children. Every day during the spring and summer, we bring kids from the urban environment out into the lake. They are usually pretty apprehensive before we cast off at the Central Wharf, but by the time we hit the Buffalo Lighthouse, they are looking back at the beautiful city with amazement and wonder," Hilliman said. "During our program, they make positive connections to the lake and begin to understand the biology and geography in ways that will influence them for the rest of their lives."

That is a consequential connection. In a city that lost its connectivity to the water with the building of the Niagara Thruway, it's important to bring both old and young generations back to the water's edge and out into the waters of the Niagara River and Lake Erie. This is our future.

This idea is not lost on some of our most outspoken political representatives, who have strong beliefs that appropriate waterfront development will characterize our future. Rep. Brian Higgins, who has focused much of his congressional career on Buffalo's waterfront and brought hundreds of millions of dollars into play here, says that the waterfront defines our region.

"People from all over -- Ellicottville, Williamsville, Amherst -- are as excited about what happens here as are the city residents. We are at a game-changing moment. And the good news is that our local progress is unified in ways that we have not seen in the past 75 years of visioning," Higgins said. "What we decide now, and how we invest, will guide our future economic opportunities and our potential for jobs growth and will help us create the kind of city we want for the 21st century."

Assemblyman Sean Ryan recently authored important legislation making the Buffalo River an eligible water body for Local Waterfront Revitalization Program funding. This could mean millions of dollars to the waterfront. He is concerned about the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority ownership of waterfront properties and wants the NFTA to divest itself of property so that it can focus on the mission of public transportation. Ryan suggests that there are other state agencies that need to take the waterfront lead, but cautions that there are not enough public voices making decisions.

"We need more public representation and engagement on the board of directors of the ECHDC and not just established decision makers that represent private interests," he said. "This land is valuable, but only after significant public investment. We should make sure that development promotes public access and not just a privatization of public resources made marketable by public investments."

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a vocal advocate of an ecologically healthy Great Lakes. She knows the impact of clean water on our regional economy, and believes that substantial Washington resources such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative can directly benefit our region.

Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, director of Ecological Programs at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, says that Riverkeeper has brought millions of dollars toward revitalizing Buffalo's waterfront, and that maintaining public access is fundamental. She said appropriate economic development that respects ecology is important and that an appropriate mix of uses can be targeted for the outer harbor. "Economic health and environmental health go hand in hand," Jedlicka said.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the annual percentage of world GDP based on tourism was 9.3 percent in 2010 and growing at almost 5 percent per year. In 2011, its impacts translated to $6.3 trillion in GDP, and 255 million jobs (one in 12). This makes tourism the world's largest industry. According to the World Trade Organization, ecotourism is the fastest growing sector, with heritage tourism right behind. Tourism in the Greater Niagara region is a $2 billion annual industry supporting more than 40,000 jobs. We can build on that. Eco and heritage tourism could be this region's future. These are the greenest of green jobs and, if developed here, could mark a permanent upturn in our economic and ecological health.

When Sylvia Earle, a former chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric (NOAA) and current Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, came to Buffalo a few years back, I asked her about conservation and economic development strategies for the Great Lakes. She told me, "You should think about a marine sanctuary."

Currently NOAA administers 14 national marine sanctuaries in diverse locations from Hawaii, Alaska and Washington to the Florida Keys. Marine sanctuaries are designed to promote conservation while allowing compatible commercial and recreational activities. There is only one NOAA-designated marine sanctuary in the Great Lakes and that is in Thunder Bay in Lake Huron. The sanctuary has been an economic powerhouse for that region.

So why not create a Lake Erie-Niagara River national marine sanctuary? We have world-class biodiversity here, including the Niagara River Corridor "globally significant" Important Bird Area, recognized because of both the diversity and threats to migrating birds, fish and other wildlife. We have marine access heritage sites offshore and onshore, including our grain elevators, the Underground Railroad, the early harbor, First People and the War of 1812, all of which help to tell the story of America.

Our marine sanctuary should include portions of Lake Erie, the Niagara River and the Buffalo River, which is newly recognized as eligible for state Local Waterfront Revitalization funding. Other funding sources could include the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and appropriate private investment that protects open space on the waterfront and prevents urban sprawl. Clearly, how we develop our onshore and offshore outer harbor will be key to investing in a consequential recreation and tourism economy.

Imagine building an economic plan around conservation, tourism and recreation. World-class bird watching, recreational fishing, boating, kayaking, sailing and all of the service contexts -- including tours, service liveries and amenities that would accompany such a plan -- can characterize our 21st century region. Take this a step further and imagine a vision of a Woods Hole-type research and education center focused on sustainable Great Lakes waters. Imagine our colleges and universities tying in to make our region a leader in Great Lakes sustainability. Imagine all of this as our future! If we work together, we can make our future as bright as the rising sun.