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Preservation Buffalo Niagara leader welcomes Maid of Mist halt

NIAGARA FALLS – The court order that has halted work on the Maid of the Mist’s new storage facility in the Niagara Gorge was met with approval Tuesday by a local preservation leader, who cited the historical significance of the old Schoellkopf Power Station.

“It was the first site for power generation in Niagara Falls,” said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “It’s where we started generating electricity as a commodity in the community.”

U.S. operators of the Maid of the Mist boat tours want to use the site of the former Schoellkopf plant as its new docking and boat storage site, but its work has been halted by a temporary restraining order. Yots stopped short of endorsing the project pending further review of the site.

“As long as we first accommodate the Schoellkopf site, and if the project is determined to be a compatible use, then I think it’s good for everybody,” said Yots, former city historian for Niagara Falls and former chairman of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission.

The parcel is just north of the Rainbow Bridge in the lower Niagara River. It contains the ruins of the Schoellkopf hydroelectric plant, whose thunderous collapse in 1956 led to the construction of the Niagara Power Project. It has become the focus of a court battle between Maid of the Mist Corp. and the Niagara Preservation Coalition, which sought the court order.

The boat-storage facility being built by Maid of the Mist is critical for the company’s survival after it lost its storage area in Niagara Falls, Ont., when the province granted tour rights there to Hornblower Cruises of California.

The first hearing on the issue is scheduled Thursday in State Supreme Court.

Tuesday, representatives from Maid of the Mist, Empire State Development and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation reiterated their commitment to the project.

“We are compliant with state and federal law,” said Pete Gallivan, director of communications for the Western New York Regional Office of Empire State Development. “Right now we are confident the courts will see it that way, and we will be able to proceed with rock scaling and the rest of the project.”

Gallivan said the site has experienced two rock slides since the 1956 collapse.

“The next steps are to clear brush and establish the work area below,” he said, “and to install a temporary crane atop the gorge to lower equipment and materials to the work site.”

Gallivan, who Tuesday led media boat tours of the site, confirmed that land-use permits were issued for the project by the New York Power Authority and that the State Environmental Quality Review has been released by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III signed a temporary restraining order requested by Niagara Preservation Coalition to prevent the Maid of the Mist from continuing work on the $32 million project. The preservation group is led by Lou Ricciuti, identified in published reports as an environmental research activist.

The coalition, according to attorney William F. B. O’Reilly representing Hornblower Cruises, wants “the best possible deal for the park and Niagara Falls taxpayers, a proper environmental review before any major construction is undertaken at the Falls and the preservation of the Schoellkopf ruins, a National Historic Landmark.”

O’Reilly, responding in an emailed statement, also stated: “We urge Maid of the Mist to stop its mud throwing and to proceed with arguments based on merit.”

Yots, who lived in Niagara Falls for 40 years, said he was not familiar with the Niagara Preservation Coalition, a newly formed group with ties to Hornblower Cruises.

“I’ve never heard of this organization before,” Yots said.

In December, State Parks filed an application for the Schoellkopf powerhouse ruins to be placed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places.

“Gov. Cuomo and New York State agree that this is a significant historical site, but the area we’re talking about is covered with rubble right now,” Gallivan said. “It’s a matter of stabilizing the site of the 1956 collapse.”