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Niagara County officials to Cuomo: No lodge on Goat Island

A lodge on Goat Island is not going over well with most elected officials in Niagara Falls.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal for a developer to build a lodge on Goat Island would harm the island's reputation as a place of natural beauty, and also would put other hotels in the Falls at a competitive disadvantage, members of the Niagara Falls City Council and the Niagara County Legislature say.

Not only would the lodge have a prime location, but because it would be built on state land, the lodge owners would be exempt from property taxes, Empire State Development spokeswoman Laura Magee confirmed. But the lodge would pay sales taxes and the city's bed tax on room rates, she said.

Magee defended the proposal and promised extensive public process.

"The concept of a lodge on Goat Island is part of New York State's overall strategy to extend visitor stay, facilitate outdoor recreation and provide a truly unique, small-scale lodging facility. The concept is very preliminary and there will be an extensive public process," Magee said.

But just the idea of a lodge on the island runs against the grain of what was intended for the state parks at Niagara Falls, others say.

"The land was preserved at one point in time to keep it as a state park and not commercialize it," Councilman Ezra P. Scott Jr. said. "At this time, there's no need to place things that are going to compete with the City of Niagara Falls, which is in a place where it's still progressing and picking up from the depression it's been in over time."

Scott said he would like to discuss the possibility of a different location for a lodge, and Mayor Paul A. Dyster hinted Friday that could happen.

"Goat Island is only one of several locations that could be considered as an option for a lodge. I am confident that we can find a location that residents and visitors alike will find more suitable," Dyster said in a prepared statement. "I have been assured that the public's input on where a lodge might be located will play a critical role in determining the final decision."

The state plans to seek proposals from developers later this year for what Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of the state's USA Niagara Development Corp., last month called a "very boutique" lodge of 75 to 100 rooms on the island.

That is not fair to other Niagara Falls hoteliers and other businesses, another councilman said.

"To me, it gives the developer, if there were to be a lodge there, an unfair advantage," Councilman Andrew P. Touma said. "To me, if a tourist went to that lodge, they wouldn't have to leave Goat Island. That would impact the small businesses in Niagara Falls. That's not equitable and I don't think that's fair to the city and to the taxpayers."

The proposed site is a 1.73-acre parking lot at the eastern end of Goat Island, which splits the Niagara River into its American and Canadian branches, leading to the two waterfalls.

That location is as far from the Falls as the island's geography allows, but environmentalists and preservationists have condemned the idea of the lodge as a black eye to the 19th century plan of Frederick Law Olmsted – the designer of Niagara Falls State Park – to keep the island as natural as possible.

"If you're lucky enough to have an Olmsted park in your midst, I think it's like a piece of art. It's not something you should fool around with," Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti said.

Councilman Kenny Tompkins put his views in writing, releasing a letter he sent Cuomo that calls for more direct state investment in the city.

"Our residents are not fooled," Tompkins wrote. "They recognize that this will only serve to keep visitors out of the city and instead spend their time and money only on Goat Island and in the state parks."

"Where are these people going to park if there's a 100-room lodge? Where are they going to park 100 cars on Goat Island? Are they going to park in the city and ship them there?" County Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso asked. "The city's going to have to provide fire protection on that, and they're not paying any (property) taxes."

The state's expected request for proposals would combine the lodge with plans for more attractions in the parks, in hopes of keeping tourists in Niagara Falls longer. That's been a perennial goal of Falls tourism promoters and hotel owners.

Several local officials said they've been contacted by hotel owners who think the lodge is a bad idea. However, the hoteliers  either refused to be interviewed or did not respond to calls seeking comment. Several already are operating with their own state or county incentive packages.

Some  Democratic  officials said they didn't want to appear to be attacking Cuomo.

"Gov. Cuomo has done more for Niagara Falls than all of his predecessors combined, including the decision to remove the Robert Moses Parkway and undertake the largest expansion of the park since Olmsted," Dyster said.

"I'm a huge supporter of the governor," Grandinetti said. "He is the first governor who has ever paid attention to Niagara Falls for 50 years and he's been wonderful to us. But I can't support this idea. I think it's a terrible idea."

The County Legislature is controlled by Republicans who often criticize Cuomo.
Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, said he is "really confident" the GOP members will do that again and approve a message to send to Cuomo, even though it's sponsored by three Niagara Falls Democrats.
The City Council and County Legislature are expected to vote on the anti-lodge message at their meetings Tuesday night.
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