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Higgins, state end Outer Harbor 'dustup'

The "dustup" between Rep. Brian Higgins and state officials overseeing  the Outer Harbor appears to have subsided after they agreed to hasten development in time for next spring.

That means trails, bike rentals, benches, landscaping and other amenities – similar to what has sprouted over the past year at the Outer Harbor's Wilkeson Pointe – could be ready or at least in the pipeline in time for next summer.

Higgins in September sharply criticized the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation's pace in providing amenities in the approximately 130 acres between the Bell Slip and Seaway Pier.

But his words were much more conciliatory this week.

"Whatever occurred was a dustup that resulted in some creative tension," Higgins said Thursday. "I think everyone is now on the same page."

Robert D. Gioia, chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., agreed that despite Higgins' barbs in recent weeks, all are now working amiably and progress will soon be noted.

"Most of this can be done sooner rather than later except for the significant construction," he said. "But everybody is on the same page, even if not the same sentence and punctuation point."

Though Higgins said he had grown increasingly disillusioned with the agency and even questioned whether it had outlived its usefulness, the congressman appeared Wednesday with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Gioia to announce new funds for a vintage carousel at Canalside.

On Thursday Higgins said he now believes the development agency reflects his desire for the new developments to be in place for early 2017 and he is satisfied with new commitments from the development agency.

"I am simply looking for something extraordinary in its simplicity – a safe, inviting, enjoyable waterfront experience," he said. "So we just want to move the beginning of the 2017 summer season to create that sense of place."

The harbor agency has budgeted $15 million for Outer Harbor development that resulted in reconstruction of the break wall and 1,100 new slips at the Small Boat Harbor, along with other major projects.

Gioia said food outlets and other amenities will get started soon, though state requirements on bidding and environmental considerations may slow some projects for several months.

"But do we want to embrace improvements to the bike ferry and the opportunity to look out over the water, as well as food venues?" he said. "The answer is yes."

Gioia last month said he was “perplexed and puzzled” over Higgins' criticism with so much good news surrounding the waterfront, including summer attendance numbers of 1.5 million visitors at Canalside and 250,000 at the Outer Harbor.

But on Thursday he also expressed confidence that development will continue on a pace that will please Higgins and all involved.

"It will continue to evolve," he said. "Just the increasing population that continues to visit and enjoy it out there is an indication that we're doing something right."

Higgins acknowledged "frustration with the lack of progress this past summer" on the Outer Harbor, and had earlier expressed concern that those not in full agreement with the harbor agency were becoming "marginalized."

But he said he now sees a stronger commitment to the "lighter, quicker, cheaper" concept of development that should result in significant development soon.

"I've got to be an agitator," he said, "like one of those old washing machines. I just want to remove the dirt of inertia from the process."

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