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Small Boat Harbor operator drops plan for $5 parking fee

Parking at the new state park at the Small Boat Harbor will remain free – just as it always has.

The private contractor now operating the marina for the state parks system said Friday he is nixing his plan to charge $5 for parking in some Buffalo Harbor State Park lots throughout this summer – and hopefully beyond – though neither he nor Albany has made further commitments.

Still, the uproar over news he would charge for parking prompted Darby Campbell of Tennessee-based Safe Harbor Development to acknowledge he now recognizes the concern of all Outer Harbor stakeholders and the importance of total public access.

“I probably could have handled this differently, but we’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “This is all about satisfying the slip holders, access to the waterfront, and hopefully keeping everybody happy.”

“Bottom line is we’re trying to be a good citizen, do the right thing, and not go broke doing it,” he added.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation took over New York’s largest marina this year following decades of Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority ownership. It then contracted with Safe Harbor to run the complex.

At the time the land was transferred, state officials promised no charges for parking or admission. But when Campbell unveiled his early vision for the area as more marina and less park, Rep. Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns responded with demands for continued free access to the waterfront.

That prompted a flurry of telephone calls over the past few days involving Campbell and the state aiming to preserve public access and accommodate the new operator, too.

Higgins on Friday hailed the agreement and promised to monitor the situation.

“The people of Buffalo and Western New York have been denied access to the waterfront for decades,” he said. “There should not be a fee imposed for access to any part of a new state park. We will continue to advocate to ensure the waterfront is open to everyone.”

Campbell said a new system of parking lot management will ensure priority parking for those renting the marina’s 1,037 slips. That means restrictions on boat trailer parking at the marina while directing non-slip holders to their own parking areas.

“It’s going to free up additional opportunities for the public and free up our labor in confining folks to one area,” he explained, adding Safe Harbor and parks staff will cooperate to manage parking and satisfy the growing number of park visitors.

Other harbor stakeholders like Dug’s Dive owner Tucker Curtin also signaled approval. After eight years of building his marina restaurant into a major waterfront attraction, Curtin said he wants to find a new and better location for Dug’s Dive next year. But last week he vocally opposed the parking fee plan because of its potential effect on his business and on the concept of waterfront access.

“I think these guys now have a better understanding of things down there and of the needs of the community,” he said. “When you see all the activity there, you realize this can be a positive thing with the changes.

“It appears the guys from Safe Harbor are up to the challenge,” he added.

Campbell, meanwhile, assured slip holders that parking will continue to be available at his marina and that new and higher fees will finance major improvements like permanent docks. The new concrete facilities able to withstand ice pressure will ultimately reduce costs by eliminating labor intensive efforts to install and remove the current seasonal docks.

The permanent docks will feature upgraded electric and water hookups, he said, as part of a business plan he hopes will support about $10 million in improvements. That also should result in a longer boating season.

“With better docks, we could have opened two weeks ago,” he said. “And why not leave them open until Nov. 1?”

State officials, who through more than a week of controversy over the situation declined any direct comment, were happy on Friday to highlight $3 million in improvements coming to the state’s newest park. They include:

• Two open-air picnic pavilions hosting 100 people each.

• A nautically-themed playground.

• New benches and trash receptacles

• Improved lighting, walkways, landscaping and utility upgrades.

State parks officials also said boat-launching fees will continue at $7 but that Empire Passport and other park passes will be accepted. A full slate of special events also is planned for the summer.

Parks officials said after Labor Day, workers will pave the harbor’s breakwall and furnish it with lighting, shade structures and benches. They said Safe Harbor also plans accommodations for Wi-Fi, improved trash collection methods, new landscaping and fresh paint.

“You’re going to have a world-class marina there,” Campbell said.