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Lockport looks for a piece of the tourism action

LOCKPORT – The Holy Grail of Niagara County tourism has been the quest to find a strong secondary attraction – something that would keep some of the roughly 8 million annual visitors to Niagara Falls in the county an extra day or two.

Lockport is making its bid to be that attraction.

So think canal, cave, zip lines, a bungee jump and hockey.

One idea, promoted by Lockport Cave owner Thomas P. Callahan, is hanging zip lines as far as 86 feet above the Erie Canal, using three platforms. Two would have to be built on state-owned land on the high banks of the waterway.

“We’re going through the hoops of the application,” said Callahan, who hasn’t ruled out being able to obtain a state permit in time to start ziplining this summer.

“That would be neat,” said Lena DeSantis of Houston, who decided on the spur of the moment one recent afternoon to drive up from Buffalo, where she was on a business trip, and take the Cave’s underground boat ride.

“You’d get a lot of the adventurous 30-somethings coming in with money to spend because they have no kids,” DeSantis predicted.

It was a typical day at the Cave ticket office, with cars bearing license plates from Georgia, Texas, Wyoming, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario. And most of their drivers said they had indeed extended their stay in Niagara Falls by a day to come to Lockport.

Kim and John Pine of Marion, Ohio, said they saw a brochure for the Lockport Cave in their Niagara Falls hotel and decided to come out. “It’s not bad. We usually go to Tennessee for vacation. This is a lot different,” Kim Pine said.

Tyler Nichols of Richmond, Va., made a similar decision, although he had a local angle, since he married a woman from Niagara Falls. He said his mother-in-law told him about Lockport. “An underground boat ride sounded fun,” he said.

Larry Caplinger of Chillicothe, Ohio, said he decided to stay in Lockport and drive to the Falls, instead of the other way around, after concluding from online reviews that Lockport had better motels.

Callahan said he is mulling the pros and cons of staying open year-round, since his underground channel never freezes and isn’t subject to the water levels in the canal, which stop the regular canal boat rides from operating outside of the May-to-October time frame.

The effort might be worthwhile, because Lockport is now home to a twin-rink hockey arena. Cornerstone Arena opened last fall and immediately began to bring in hockey players, parents and fans from around the region. Bookings weren’t as heavy as they might have been because the rinks didn’t open in time for the start of the hockey season, but Brian M. Smith, city planning and development director, said the arena is doing very well booking ice time for next season.

Some of the hockey visitors were looking for things to do between games of the various tournaments Cornerstone Arena did host last winter.

“We did get some calls,” Callahan said. But the Cave wasn’t open.

That might change this winter. Callahan said the temperature in the Cave, which is 45 feet underground, remains at a constant 58 degrees year-round, so it might actually be a warming experience after the cold arena.

“That’s very exciting, because it’s new business,” Callahan said.

There are other ideas afoot.

Two dentists, a surgeon and a lawyer have formed a not-for-profit corporation that hopes to acquire and renovate the five-story Electric Building at the base of the canal locks.

The main come-on proposed by the Historic Lockport Millrace Corp. is a bungee-like plunge in a harness down a shaft from the roof to the basement.

There is no elevator shaft in the 19th century building, so the corporation is seeking state and foundation grants to cut one through the five stories. In all, it’s a $600,000 idea.

The city has given the corporation a one-year lease on the building to see what progress the group can make. Adventure Solutions Group of Baltimore has been chosen to try to make the dream a reality, corporation president Dr. Todd M. Retell said.

Meanwhile, the restoration of the original canal locks to working order, a project pursued for more than 15 years, finally began to come to fruition last year, when two of the five locks were reopened.

Counting design work, it cost $3.2 million to make the locks work for the first time in a century.

However, the project remains in its infancy, as funding is still being sought to restore the other three locks and to obtain a replica canal boat that could go up and down the Flight of Five, as the stair-like locks are called. That would show how the canal actually worked during its first century of operation, before the current pair of steel locks were installed 101 years ago.

In the meantime, the two locks are demonstrated on Saturday mornings, as crews of volunteers pull the long wooden beams that open the gates and let water in and out of the locks.

The restoration has won awards from the local and state chapters of the American Public Works Association, and finished second in the group’s national engineering competition. The Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor also gave the project an award.

At the start of the project, feasibility studies spoke of 250,000 visitors a year. There are skeptics, including Mike Murphy, who has operated Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises, the canal boat ride, for 25 years.

“They spent all this money on the Flight of Five, but I haven’t seen 100,000 people come and look at it,” Murphy said. “The thought of putting a boat in there and making it work is a pipe dream. People who took the boat ride (from Murphy’s company) already saw it.”

“We’re using this season to test our capacity,” said David R. Kinyon, president of the Locks Heritage District Corp.

“We’re getting some good feedback. … People are absolutely astounded by the locks’ restoration.”

Lockport has long pitched itself to history and engineering buffs, but the out-of-staters at the Cave the other day showed little interest in the canal.

“I didn’t even realize that was the Erie Canal until I crossed over it,” said DeSantis, the Houston businesswoman.

John Pine, the Ohio visitor, said his first impression of Lockport was, “It’s not very interesting.”

If the zipline and the Electric Building plunge become realities, they would “draw another type of person to Lockport,” Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said. After all, the Flight of Five, or the Tiffany stained-glass windows in First Presbyterian Church, might not appeal to the video game and smartphone generation.

“I have teenagers,” the mayor said. “I can picture people walking into that and being interested for a while, and then wanting to jump on a zipline.”

Nichols, the Virginia visitor, agreed that the zipline would be a hit. “We’ve got a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old. They’re getting older and interested in that kind of stuff,” he said.

“There are definitely people interested in taking action to add to our tourism presence,” McCaffrey said. “There are different aspects of Lockport that would appeal to different people.”