NIAGARA FALLS – When tourists go to America's premier national parks, they can also spend the night in historic lodges – at a hefty price.
At Yellowstone, after viewing Old Faithful, moose and elk, they have their choice of nine lodges, some as tall as six stories with 2,000 rooms and prices topping $500 a night.
In Yosemite, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel offers what its website calls "stunning views of Yosemite's most iconic cliffs and waterfalls," for which the five-story hotel, which has stood since 1927, charges as much as $550 a night.
But at America's most popular natural attraction, Niagara Falls, visitors who choose to stay overnight have choices ranging from old-school motels to a casino hotel or some of the new properties downtown.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo envisions a lodge – perhaps 100 rooms, smaller than the ones at Yellowstone and Yosemite – on Goat Island.
"When you look across the river, you see Canada has more activities," Cuomo said during his regional state of the state speech last month in Amherst. "We need to correct that, and we’re going to do it in Niagara Falls. On Goat Island we will create a year-round destination for tourism and build a world-class lodge with sweeping views of the Niagara River."
But some call Goat Island too pristine, sacred and small for a lodge – world class or not.
A selling point for Niagara Falls State Park has been the natural setting, the ability to get closer to the rushing water than on the Canadian side, which has more development.
Although the proposed lodge would be built on what is now a parking lot on the eastern end of the island, as far away from the falls as possible, environmentalists say the governor's idea flies in the face of what Goat Island is supposed to be – a nature preserve, as envisioned some 130 years ago by the state park's designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.
"I believe Olmsted's actual words were that it was supposed to be for 'quiet and peaceful contemplation.' It was for being immersed into nature. This doesn't seem to be what that is," said Thomas J. Yots, the former executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "I'm just mystified why someone would suggest this."
The lodge the governor envisions would have 75 to 100 rooms – "a very boutique property," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, the state development agency devoted to Niagara Falls.
Empire State Development Corp. spokeswoman Laura Magee said the lodge would be built entirely with private money.
"The heritage lodge should be put in the context, as the governor stated, of a much broader outdoor recreation approach," Schoepflin said.
The state wants to see activities in the state parks around Niagara Falls such as cross-country skiing, rappelling, zip-lining, hiking and biking. Those activities are part of the same request for proposals, expected to be issued before the middle of this year, that would include the possible construction of the lodge.
Schoepflin said the state will seek a "master developer and operator" for both aspects.
"It's not just about the lodge, although it could be a spectacular feature," Schoepflin said.
He referred to the planned lodge site as "a non-historic portion of Goat Island."
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the parking lot was built on landfill about the same time the former Robert Moses Parkway was built.
"I would guess there would be less sensitivity about an area that was not a natural part of the island to start with," Dyster said.
Ruining the view
Local preservationists disagree, saying a lodge would ruin the views of the rapids above the falls.
They also contend that the state is again tampering with the original idea for the Niagara Reservation – to have it be as natural as possible.
"Its integrity should be respected. It is public space and should be used for public uses, not privatized for the profit of a few," said Lynda Schneekloth, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.
E.R. "Bob" Baxter III, one of the founders of the Niagara Heritage Partnership, also blasted the plan.
"Did it ever cross your mind that those tourists who travel for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to Niagara Falls, to see that prodigious amount of water flowing, thundering into a ten-thousand-year-old gorge, have come to see a phenomenon of the natural world?" he asked in a letter to Cuomo. "Did you ever once perceive the trees and foliage and rocky shores of Goat Island to be a frame, an extension of that natural world? Can you understand that whatever detracts from, or commercializes, that natural world does so at a risk of reducing the quality of the experience for the tourist?"
Although visitors can't see the falls from the east end of the island, they get a valuable view of the Niagara River splitting into two streams and the rapids starting to churn as the water flows toward the two cataracts, Yots said.
"Certainly the people in the hotel will have (that view), but people standing at the eastern end of Goat Island will see a hotel in place of that," said Yots, a former Niagara Falls city historian and bed-and-breakfast operator.
Opponents of Cuomo's plan recently posted an online petition against it, with nearly 700 signatures as of Thursday.
Different tourist opinions
Visitors who recently braved the cold for a visit to Niagara Falls seem split on whether lodging should come to the island.
"I think it would be cool, because tourists might think it's cooler to be near the falls rather than a 10-minute walk away," said Allison Dodge of Syracuse.
Konstantinos Tsigkrelis, a native of Greece now living in Buffalo, said he comes to Goat Island frequently and had no objection to Cuomo's plan.
"That would be a good idea. There would be more tourists. It would be a nice place for a cup of coffee or lunch or dinner. Why not?" he said.
Tsigkrelis, however, said that he would like the lodge to be "not super-tall, made of wood maybe, something that will not interact with the view."
Environmentalists' concerns meant little to Tsigkrelis.
"They always bring trouble to anything, always," he said. "We need to keep having both. We need to keep the people happy and the environmentalists happy, somehow. There can always be a middle ground for everything."
Not all visitors like the idea of a lodge on Goat Island.
"There's enough hotels in town," said Steve Ibbotson of Lincolnshire, England.
The state park and the Canadian side are already too built up, and the nature preserve idea is largely lost.
"I would rather see all this gone. I find it absolutely obscene," Ibbotson said. "It should be a place of natural beauty. If you want an ice cream, go to McDonald's."
"You shouldn't damage the scenery itself for making more tourists comfortable here," said Milad Tahanon, a visitor from Paris.
Niagara Falls tourism promoters have long sought to provide enough attractions to keep visitors in the area longer, instead of looking at the falls and leaving in a few hours.
"By building hotels, I don't think the problem is solved," said Tahanon, the French tourist, who was planning to leave right after viewing the cataracts.
"You have to create some more attractions to Niagara Falls," he said. "If it's just Niagara Falls (the waterfall), you come, make your visit, walk around and leave."
"I know Niagara Falls needs something to boost it, but I don't think the lodge is the thing. You've got all these hotels going up now," Christina Human of Niagara Falls, who was at the eastern parking lot looking out at the rapids on recent afternoon. "If you're going to build so many hotels, you need to have something that's going to keep tourists here."
Helping other hotels
State officials say the governor's idea could benefit the other hotels in Niagara Falls, including those that have received state and county incentives for construction or renovation.
Schoepflin said the room rates at the Goat Island lodge would be somewhat higher than typical for Niagara Falls. He said that could enable other hotels to charge more, too.
"I look at it as pushing the market upward, taking rates to places they haven't been before," Schoepflin said. "As we push rates up to new levels, the upward trajectory of the marketplace is what we're interested in and what the governor's vision is."
John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said a price boost for other hotels could result from a lodge.
"There's nothing scientific that says that, but typically if there is a desired product and you can't get in because of whatever circumstances, usually the overflow goes to the other hotels," Percy said. "With 75 to 100 rooms that are maybe in high demand, you are going to see a movement to other properties. It's supply and demand."
Percy said hotel owners are not panicking over the prospect of more competition.
"When I've spoken to other hoteliers, they don't feel (a lodge) is a problem as long as it's on an even playing field, meaning that there are not state subsidies for that property that would make it unfair to other hotels that haven't gotten state subsidies," Percy said.
Magee, the Empire State Development spokeswoman, said the plan would be subject to public comment and would have to comply with the same state environmental and historic preservation process as any other construction project.
Delaware North, the Buffalo company that already operates food and retail concessions in the park, has some interest in the state's request for proposals.
"Our parks and resorts team, which has extensive experience operating and enhancing lodging facilities and other amenities in state and national parks, will certainly review any request for proposals for additional visitor services on Goat Island," Delaware North spokesman Glen A. White said.
But opponents see no need for lodging on Goat Island.
"We've got places for people to stay," said Yots, the former Preservation Buffalo Niagara director. "We've built 800 new hotel rooms (in Niagara Falls)," he said.
Baxter of the Niagara Heritage Partnership called for opponents to write and phone Cuomo's office.
"The governor can call it a lodge all he wants," Baxter said. "It would be another hotel, this one with an unfair advantage to compete with other Niagara hotels, and helping to destroy our natural heritage at the same time. Who could be proud of that?"