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Greenway funding decisions squander opportunity for riverfront park

Here is a lesson in how people can be correct and still miss the point. The committee that controls funding for the Niagara River Greenway in Niagara County is unhappy about a recent report that criticizes its allocation of funds. The committee – unfortunately – has a lot of leeway in designating those uses, and that is where the trouble lies. It is doing what the law allows, but not what it intended.

The Niagara River Greenway, established in 2004, receives $9 million a year in a 50-year agreement with the New York Power Authority. The idea was principally to beautify the strip along the Niagara River, giving Erie and Niagara counties something along the lines of the beautiful stretch that lines the western bank of the river in Ontario. But the law was expanded to include any community along the Erie Canal, the Niagara Wine Trail or the Seaway Trail, as well as the river. Thus, every municipality in Niagara County is eligible for Greenway funding.

The goal was to turn the waterfront along the Niagara River into a world-class park and to connect existing parks that dot the riverfront. It hasn’t worked out that way, because the process of awarding funds has become politicized. The impact that the program could have had – and still could have – has been vastly diminished, to the detriment of the region’s interests.

It’s not that the nonconforming projects were flatly unworthy. By and large, they achieved useful public goals – improvements to the historic Palace Theatre in Lockport and to the athletic fields in the Lewiston-Porter School District – but had nothing to do with creating a string of parks along the Niagara River. The Partnership for the Public Good, which issued the critical report, estimates that about half of the $46.7 million spent so far was for projects that failed to meet the goals of the Greenway.

Last week, the Niagara County committee continued that practice, awarding $11 million for athletic fields at Niagara Falls High School – another useful project that has nothing to do with the Greenway’s purpose.

In fact, the funding plan was rejected by the Niagara River Greenway Commission, which voted that the project was inconsistent with the goals of the Greenway. But the commission’s opinions are just that – opinions – and they carry no legal weight. Thus, the Niagara Power Coalition was legally entitled to ignore the commission and award the money to the high school project.

It’s a clear misuse of funds, no different from using Medicare funds to repair a bridge. There is a giant hole in this law. If the Greenway is to achieve the valuable purpose for which it was created, state lawmakers will need to step in and make some changes.