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Rare carousel deserves a place at Canalside

Kimberly Bernosky-Smith thinks it’s a great idea. So does Joshua Weinert, a Buffalo native visiting with his family from West Palm Beach. And everyone else I asked on a sunny Friday morning at Canalside.

All of them had heard of the carousel idea. All want to see it happen. Most think it’s worth spending public dollars to help bring a centerpiece public attraction to the downtown waterfront.

If my small-sample, unscientific poll of parents is any guide, then who can argue?

But seriously: The proposal to bring a historic carousel as family-friendly, place-defining centerpiece to Canalside – to rival Shark Girl and the historic Commercial Slip – is the best one to float down the waterway in a while.

From London to Chicago to San Francisco, cities use Ferris wheels or carousels as permanent, crowd-luring, site-defining waterfront attractions. The concept got traction here last week, when a charitable foundation put down a $25,000 deposit to rouse a rare, made-in-North-Tonawanda, 1924 wood-carved carousel from its 61-year hibernation.

The volunteer group mounting the carousel charge say they can raise the $600,000 needed to unlock the Wendt Foundation’s full $250,000 grant – particularly if the lift gets a helping hand from state officials at the Erie Canal Harbor board. As, I think, it should.

It’s one brass ring we don’t want to let slip through our fingers.

A consultant’s 2011 report recommended a carousel for the site. The solar-powered attraction fits the grassroots-driven, “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” development model. It will draw more people to Canalside, which in turn lures private developers. Commercial development is, not incidentally, the reason the state jumped onto the downtown waterfront in the first place.

The ride was built by the Herschell-Spillman Co. in North Tonawanda – and would become one of just 10 grander, park-style carousels still spinning across the country.

What’s not to like?

With a fundraising plan and a quarter-million private dollars potentially in hand, the carousel folks aren’t coming to the arcade with an empty tin cup.

“We’re confident we can raise more private money,” said Laurie Hauer-LaDuca, a member of the non-profit Buffalo Heritage Carousel. “We have major donors in mind and feel we can take it nationally, given the carousel’s historic significance.”

All of which, to my mind, argues for a governmental helping hand. Sam Hoyt of the Erie Canal Harbor board told me he’s favorably inclined – if private dollars keep galloping in.

“That’s absolutely something we would consider,” said Hoyt. “We’d need to see details and total cost but, yes, government dollars could be part of the mix.”

It’s nothing new. The Canal Harbor board will funnel more than $6 million into the coming, non-profit Canalside Children’s Museum. It gave a start-up hand to the wildly successful bike ferry. Infrastructure, programming and attractions are where public dollars have – and should – go to attract people and lure developers to Canalside.

You don’t have to sell Bernosky-Smith on the carousel idea.

“Especially in the city, we’re always looking for more family-oriented things to do,” she said Friday, as her 3-year-old ran toward a mini-Adirondack chair. “The sandbox is nice, but that’s pretty much it down here.”

Seconding the emotion was Joshua Weinert, who left Buffalo for Florida 22 years ago. He was visiting family here with his wife and two kids, 3 and 4.

“It’d be great to see a carousel down here,” he said. “Anything that brings more families is a good use of tax dollars.”

As he spoke, his kids nodded in approval. With that sort of endorsement, it’s not hard to imagine painted horses prancing in the sun, to a calliope’s call.