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State seeks vendor to provide recreation programming along Niagara Falls waterfront

NIAGARA FALLS – The state is looking for a partner to help reimagine the landscape of the City of Niagara Falls with a new range of outdoor activities as a way to grow the tourist economy.

Things like letting visitors rappel down the Niagara Gorge wall at the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Station.

Or turning historic buildings in DeVeaux Woods State Park into a multipurpose campus, with the potential for stables for horseback riding and an urban winery.

Or giving people the chance to zip line through dense tree canopies along the gorge.

The Falls has about 11 miles of waterfront between the north Grand Island bridges and Niagara Falls State Park and along the Niagara Gorge to Devil’s Hole State Park at the city line with Lewiston. The state sees the area as a place to offer visitors and residents new activities not currently available, giving tourists more things to do here and thereby increasing the amount of time – and the amount of money – they spend here.

To make that happen, the state is seeking a vendor from the private sector to provide recreation programming and facilities – everything from bicycle rentals and snowshoeing to restaurants and lodging.

It’s a vision state officials like Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development Corp., have previously shared, but hadn’t formally defined until a request for proposals was issued by the state on March 6.

“You will have things for people of all ages, but certainly family-friendly, along that river’s edge that start to change Niagara Falls from a place people come and see, to a place that people come, see and then experience,” Schoepflin told the city’s Tourism Advisory Board earlier this month.

USA Niagara Development Corp. is the Falls branch of Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency. USA Niagara and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation jointly issued the solicitation for proposals.

The state is dangling public money from the “Buffalo Billion” to assist with the implementation.

Officials also believe there is a big potential upside to enacting the plans: tapping into the huge outdoor recreation market.

McKinsey & Co., which was hired by Empire State Development to help develop Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion strategy, reported to the state figures from the Outdoor Industry Association showing there was more than $645 billion in direct spending by Americans on activities like camping, water sports, bicycling and other outdoor activities in 2011.

In seeking interested partners, the state outlined what lands and facilities are available.

In Niagara Falls State Park, the state highlighted the administration building near Prospect Point and the Calvert Vaux Carriage House on Goat Island as potential sites for hospitality uses.

The administration building, which was built in 1900 and is eligible for inclusion on the state and national registers for historic places, may have a better use than office space.

“... [I]t might be better suited for a use that facilitates actual visits to the park, such as a signature food and beverage facility,” the state wrote in the request for proposals.

The Calvert Vaux Carriage House, a 3,000-square-foot building built in the early 1900s, is currently used as a management and support building, but could be “a signature dining facility, an outdoor recreation outfitting facility and/or a small inn.”

The state also seeks improvements at the Gorge Discovery Center, which it envisions as “a multipurpose facility where you prepare, learn about and begin your actual experience into the gorge.”

Rappelling down the gorge wall is a potential activity there.

The 12-acre DeVeaux Woods State Park has four historic buildings and is seen as a potential hub for many of the activities proposed.

The former Schoellkopf school might make for a nice boutique hotel, Schoepflin said.

The Civil War-era carriage house could be a tasting area for wine made on-site.

The former gymnasium, now a maintenance building, may be turned into something wellness-related, like a yoga studio, he said.

The park may even be a good site for small cabins, he said.

The conditions of the buildings that would be open to new uses vary, and the state says the sites need to be researched to make sure potential uses would be safe and viable.

The state’s solicitation also envisions various uses along the Upper Niagara River along land owned by the New York Power Authority, as well as Whirlpool State Park and Devil’s Hole State Park.

Should some of the parks buildings currently used by staff see their type of usage change, the existing staff and material would have to find new homes.

While officials await specific proposals for the buildings, some offices are already in the midst of being moved from Niagara Falls State Park’s administration building to the former Kenan-Castellani building in DeVeaux Woods, which is being renovated.

With a wide range of areas available on the upper and lower Niagara River, a number of other types of recreational activities are expected to be offered and encouraged, including birding, hiking and fishing, or snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter months.

“We have a very under-utilized natural environment here,” said Mark W. Thomas, regional director for the State Parks office.

This expansive project coincides with two other projects involving alterations to the Robert Moses Parkway along both the upper and lower river.

A section of the parkway between Main Street and Findlay Drive will be removed, a project now moving into the engineering phase. That work will create new greenspace.

Another section between John Daly Boulevard and Niagara Falls State Park is being reconfigured to allow for easier visual and physical connections to the upper river.

That work will lower the grade of the roadway, reduce the number of travel lanes and include additional greenspace. Construction is slated to begin on that part in October.

Schoepflin said he envisions a prime contractor being awarded the vendor contract, with additional subcontractors handling smaller pieces. Responses to the state’s request are due May 16.

The new projects would not be done all at once, but rather would be phased in, starting with the less-complicated projects, Schoepflin said.

State officials are aware that some of the proposals have more potential for public controversy than others. It defines the proposed rappelling at the former Schoellkopf site and rock climbing at other gorge locations, which would need engineering and environmental study, as “somewhat controversial.”

Reusing structures at DeVeaux Woods and zip-lining activities in the gorge are identified as “moderately controversial,” while the proposed reuse of buildings in Niagara Falls State Park is viewed as “moderately to highly controversial.”

When asked about what type of public response he expected, Thomas, the regional parks director, said he would have to wait to see what specifically is proposed.

“Until you have specifics, it’s very difficult for the public to give you a reaction,” Thomas said.

Schoepflin said he believes the state may select a partner by the end of the year.

The expected improvements, which likely will take years to implement, are not just for tourists, either.

Schoepflin stressed the work also will improve the quality of life for those who live in the region.

He emphasized that what lies in the recently released documents is merely ideas developed by the state, leaving open the possibilities of whatever interested firms might have in mind.

“We expect the private sector will have some unique thoughts of their own,” Schoepflin said.