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We deserve the best deal on Maid of the Mist

It’s not about saving power plant rubble at the edge of the Niagara River. Or whether a preservation group is working with a California company to block the Maid of the Mist.

It’s about getting the best deal for the taxpayers of New York State.

Public debate over two lawsuits that seek to pry open a deal between the state and the Maid of the Mist Corp. has veered into tired old complaints about preservationists and obstructionists.

“ANOTHER law suit in WNY to stop progress and relish the demise of anything going forward. … GO FIGURE,” wrote one online commenter on a Buffalo News story last week.

And another: “Sometimes tradition should win out rather than someone coming in and undercutting a contract. I honestly could care less if this was an open bidding process or not.”

There’s a good reason to care. The state park system has suffered from budget cuts that just a few years ago left bathrooms locked and beaches without lifeguards. Work is finally under way to restore neglected areas of Niagara Falls State Park, but the state had to tap into promised future revenue from the Power Authority to do it.

The boat tours, along with souvenir sales and other concessions in the park, help make Niagara Falls one of the few moneymakers in the state park system.

That money has been used to help run parks throughout the region, but it hasn’t been enough to adequately maintain them. Who picks up the rest of the tab? For the most part, you and I.

So why wouldn’t we want the best deal possible from a company that’s using publicly owned, natural resources to run its business? And if another company claims it could offer a better cut of the money made from shuttling tourists to the falls, then why wouldn’t the state want to at least take a look?

There’s good reason to believe the state’s decision to quietly award the Maid of the Mist a 40-year, no-bid contract in 2002 wasn’t the best deal. The company, under the latest deal, has offered to pay for the $32 million construction of the boat docks and to triple what it pays to the state – prompting the question of whether the state could have asked for more 11 years ago.

Back then, the state considered the Maid of the Mist a “sole source” provider because it was the only company with access to docks in Canada. Now that another company is slated to take over the Canadian operations, the state’s rationale for not opening the Maid of the Mist contract to bidding is that it is simply amending the existing deal.

This all started four years ago because a few people were willing to ask hard questions about why the Ontario Parks Commission was renewing its deal with the Maid of the Mist without seeking other proposals. The fallout led to open bidding, scathing reports about parks commission operations and a housecleaning of parks leadership.

That should have left plenty of time for New York State to do its own soul-searching about the future of the Maid of the Mist. Instead, it’s scrambling now to “save” a company with a deadline for construction ticking away.

It’s possible still that the Maid of the Mist is in the best position to offer the tours from New York. It has the boats, it knows the business, and it’s willing to build the docks so the boat tours in the U.S. aren’t dependent on Canada.

But without the state even looking at other offers, we’ll never know what could have been.