In September 2004, then-Gov. George E. Pataki stood at a riverfront park in North Tonawanda for a ceremonial signing and announced an ambitious new public project that would create a continuous system of trails and parks connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
“We now have a unique opportunity to reclaim that [Frederick Law] Olmsted vision of a magnificent waterfront here on the Niagara Frontier, not so much for ourselves, but for our children and their children,” Pataki said that day. “And we are going to do it. We are not going to miss the opportunity we have been given, after 100 years of mistakes.”
Since then, nearly $50 million in public money has been spent.
On new sidewalks in Sanborn. For state-of-the-art athletic fields at Lewiston-Porter High School. For a jazz concert. For a re-enactment of a War of 1812 battle. But that park system is nowhere near completion.
And questions are being raised about how money for the Niagara River Greenway is being used and how future funds, expected to total half a billion dollars over a half-century, should be used.
“There’s a series of things that have happened here that have bastardized the process as it was conceived,” said David J. Colligan, former head of the group whose idea eventually blossomed into the Greenway parks project.
Since Pataki and state officials made that splashy announcement nearly nine years ago, about half of the nearly $50 million in public money spent in the name of a Greenway park has been used on projects that don’t have anything to do with that original goal, according to a report from the Partnership for the Public Good, a nonprofit research and advocacy group aimed at revitalizing the Buffalo Niagara region.
“Progress on the Greenway has been hampered by the fact that Greenway funds are being spent on a wide variety of projects which, however worthy, bear little or no relation to a linear system of parks and trails,” according to the report.
While some money has been spent on habitat projects in the Niagara River and on improving existing parks and park infrastructure, gaps that existed in the planned park system have not been completed and have not even been given any special priority, the report said.
More than half of the projects funded so far don’t advance the Greenway as defined in state law, it said.
The report also noted money was spent on two projects – improvements to the Historic Palace Theatre in Lockport and the Lew-Port school district’s $4.6 million athletic fields – that the state-appointed commission overseeing the Greenway deemed inconsistent with the goals.
In all, about $23 million of the $46.7 million that has been spent was used on projects that failed to meet the law’s requirements, said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for Public Good.
A disjointed system
The Greenway project is supposed to turn the waterfront along the Niagara River into a world-class park, highlighting the natural beauty of the region between the two Great Lakes, correcting decades of bad development and allowing people to connect with the water.
The hope was that the park system would boost the economy, attract tourists – some of whom might enjoy the chance to bike to Niagara Falls – and give area residents increased recreational opportunities from Buffalo to Youngstown.
At least, that was the intention of the law passed in 2004, which developed out of a grass-roots effort in Western New York, led by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
Funding for the Niagara River Greenway totals $9 million per year for 50 years, and it comes out of four different settlement agreements that various local government entities reached with the New York Power Authority. Those pots of money are controlled by four separate groups.
The deals arose because the authority was seeking a new federal operating license for the Niagara Power Project, which diverts water from the river for power production.
After the contracts were signed, each group that holds the purse strings – known as the standing committees – had to develop written rules for deciding how the money would be spent.
Also stemming out of the state law was a requirement to develop a “plan,” a document meant to guide the growth of the Greenway. That required all 13 municipalities in the project area that border the river to approve of it.
And the plan made the Greenway boundary wider than the initial vision held by supporters.
What has evolved is a complex, disjointed system that “isn’t anybody’s fault” but is a product of trying to get such a large group of people to agree, said Colligan, the former chairman of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.
Colligan said he believes the concerns highlighted in the Partnership for the Public Good report show the difficulty in working under the current set of rules guiding how the money must be spent.
Colligan, who was the one to make the area’s pitch for a linear parks system to the Pataki administration, says the Greenway was basically another unfunded mandate from Albany, and money had to be found to fund that mandate.
“Everything after that is kind of like backfill of the funding request,” he said.
Some projects that were funded through the mechanism might not fit the definition of the Niagara River Greenway “as some groups would want,” said Niagara County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, who was involved in negotiations with the Power Authority.
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, an organization that was involved throughout the relicensing process, believes some good projects have been undertaken to further the Greenway, including work on the Niagara Gorge rim and at Joseph Davis State Park.
But the organization also warns against wasting a chance to recover from what it termed as short-sighted waterfront development of previous generations.
“Our community is recognizing that more often than not, the relicensing settlement funds are being invested in projects that are not consistent with the spirit and intent of the law, nor the vision of the Niagara River Greenway,” it said.
Still a ‘golden opportunity’
While the partnership’s report is critical of some previous spending, it also points out that it’s not too late.
Magavern, who enlisted law school students to help with the research, said the report does not seek to blame any of the parties involved.
“We’ve got a golden opportunity, because this is a project that’s already funded and could really transform the region and draw a lot of people from outside the region,” he said, noting that it would also be a “great amenity” for area residents.
The Partnership for the Public Good’s report makes a series of recommendations that cover the state level, as well as operations at the state-appointed Niagara River Greenway Commission and at the standing committee level.
If followed, the recommendations would turn a fractured, unfocused process into one with a better chance of creating the Greenway many had hoped for, Magavern said.
Rob Belue, executive director of the Greenway Commission, said the body is accepting public comments on the report through the end of April. Comments can be submitted through its website, www.niagaragreenway.org.
The commission is also soliciting comments on the report from each municipality and government within the Greenway boundaries.
In an April 4 Another Voice column in The Buffalo News, Larry Beahan, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group, called the way in which Greenway money has been spent “haphazard.”
“In 2013, we have nothing that resembles that promised greenway,” Beahan wrote.