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Lockport professionals plan to remake Electric Building

LOCKPORT – If you’ve ever wanted to plunge down a five-story elevator shaft, the people taking charge of a long-vacant Lockport building have just the plan for you.

A group led by two dentists and a physician plans major surgery on the old Electric Building, hoping to make it a new tourist attraction alongside the Erie Canal.

That attraction is expected to feature a pavilion on the roof of the five-story building that can be used for banquets and other events, and a new type of high-speed bungee-type ride that would enable visitors to make an extremely fast drop through an elevatorlike shaft from the roof to the basement.

“It’s a controlled drop,” said Dr. James M. Shaw, secretary of Historic Lockport Millrace Corp., a not-for-profit group that received a one-year, $1 lease on the building from the Common Council on June 17. “We’re going to cut a hole in the roof so you can see the basement.”

The city-owned Electric Building, located below Pine Street adjoining the locks, is so-called because it contains turbines that once used canal water to generate power for Lockport industries.

The millrace is a man-made channel dug to carry water to other industries along the north bank of the canal. It still exists, and ends near the Cornerstone Arena.

Dr. Todd M. Retell, the president of the corporation, said there are ruins of an old clothing factory and an old flour mill near the Electric Building, which may date as far back as the 1830s.

The group is seeking to raise $603,000 to accomplish the first phase of its plan. Retell said half of that money would be spent on repointing the bricks in the building, making them look fresh and new, and cleaning up the grounds.

The other half of the money would be spent on creating the pavilion, the ride and a handicapped access ramp. Retell said a crack in one of the building’s walls also needs to be investigated and dealt with.

“For a building like that, the costs are never-ending,” Shaw said. “We’re getting seed money, all the costs for starting up a business.”

The corporation is asking Lockport’s Grigg-Lewis Foundation for a $300,000 grant, and Shaw said the city is looking for a state grant of a similar amount that could be used for the project.

Eventually, Retell said, the goal is to connect the rooftop pavilion by means of a ramp to the municipal parking lot on Pine Street, which was built after the city tore down a parking ramp a couple of years ago.

That concrete ramp, which stood for nearly 40 years, blocked a viewpoint overlooking the canal and made the Electric Building itself “out of sight, out of mind.”

Retell, a dentist, was chosen to lead the corporation, whose other officers are Dr. Jeffrey J. Schratz, a surgeon, as vice chairman; Shaw, a partner in Retell’s dental group, as the secretary; and Brian J. Hutchison, an attorney, as the treasurer.

The bungee ride is an idea for making the building “self-sustaining,” Retell said. But since the building has no elevator, a shaft has to be pounded through each floor. The site is expected to be at the southeast corner of the structure.

“They get put in a harness at the very top, and in a second or two, they go to the bottom,” Retell said.

While the presumably hyperventilating visitors are being hauled – much more slowly – back to the top, they will be able to see the turbines and other architectural features through plate glass, which is to be installed in the sides of the shaft. They also could see signs explaining what they’re seeing and what G-force they just survived.

“We wanted to provide another attraction, something to get people on the pavilion,” Retell said.

The corporation is hoping to accomplish enough in its first year controlling the building to persuade the city to renew the lease. Retell said Historic Millrace hasn’t decided whether to buy the building outright or simply keep leasing.

“We’re keeping all options open,” Retell said.

The surgery they’re planning on the building is nothing new. The structure originally stood eight stories tall, but the top three floors were sheared off by the state in the 1970s.

The Barnes Group, an architectural firm, is designing the pavilion, while Adventure Solutions has been chosen to create the ride.

“We’re going to put some banners up to let people know what we’re doing,” Shaw said.

This isn’t the first time someone has suggested renovating the Electric Building. In 2009, Thomas Coley, a South Wales architect hired by the city, proposed a similar project, with a rooftop observation deck and banquet facility, complete with a walkway connecting it to Pine Street. Coley’s cost estimate was $1.5 million to $2 million. Nothing ever came of the project, on which the city spent $67,000, half of it from a state grant.

Historic Lockport Millrace had its first fundraiser Saturday night, a $50-a-ticket murder mystery event in Old City Hall.

Coming up Friday, the project will benefit from a beer tent at a music show to be set up on Elm Street between Main and Walnut streets in downtown Lockport at about 7 p.m., after the city’s Independence Day parade.

Alderman John Lombardi III said it’s the “City of Lockport All-Star Jam.”

The Stoll Brothers, a perennially popular local band, will headline, but Lombardi said he and others are recruiting “some older musicians who have played with the Stoll Brothers” to sit in.

Lombardi himself said he intends to take over on drums at some point in the performance.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com