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Editorial: It's not trees stopping tourists from visiting downtown Niagara Falls

Maybe, in the end, it won’t seem like such a reckless decision. Maybe, despite the decision to cut down 70 mature trees in Niagara Falls State Park, the state will create a different beautiful setting worthy of the nation’s oldest state park. But even if it does, the reason it gave for this sudden, unpopular decision makes no sense.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation authorized the destruction of the trees on the poorly conceived idea that the area, former known as the Great Lakes Garden, obstructed views of the city. By removing the trees, went this crackpot theory, people will see the city and, having seen, might be lured into it.

But, to do what?

The problem with Niagara Falls isn’t that visitors can’t see it, it’s that they’re pretty sure there isn’t much there for them to do. That’s what needs to be fixed. This is a tourist town that offers not much to tourists once they leave the park which, today, is a little less beautiful.

What is more, there just aren’t that many stores in downtown Niagara Falls. There are some on Pine Avenue, to be sure, and some enjoyable restaurants in the area. But there are better ways to direct tourists’ attention to them than by cutting down a stand of trees whose annual flowering heralds the arrival of spring.

The comparison to Niagara Falls, Ont., is inevitable. If the state parks people were trying to tempt visitors into a city that had half the attractions as our Canadian neighbor, the effort would make more sense – though it still wouldn’t require the felling of nearly six dozen trees.

It seems plain that this destruction was aimed at tourists crossing from the Ontario side of the river, since anybody else would already have had at least a glimpse of the city. The difference for them would have to be jarring.

Visitors making the trek to the New York side will find that, instead of a lively and bustling destination, they have come upon a city that, despite some welcome improvements, remains a tourist town that is down on its luck. Yes, there are some places well worth seeing, both in the city and outside it, but they won’t be found because the state cut down 70 trees that no one was clamoring to remove.

Plans for the newly denuded area include a walkway that will offer some seating areas. A large “welcome feature” will include benches along curved granite walls displaying the Niagara Falls State Park medallion, something that can serve as a backdrop for tourists’ selfies – although, come to think of it, a nearby waterfall seems well suited for that pastime. In addition, a monument to Tuscarora Nation Chief Clinton Rickard will be moved closer to the visitor center.

Maybe it will all look appealing in the end. But it’s hard to believe that it will prompt visitors to check out the restaurants and (few) shops that lie beyond the park’s borders or to visit the new Underground Railroad Heritage Center or to check out Fort Niagara State Park or the Erie Canal locks in Lockport. It won’t tempt them to hike the stone steps that lead to the turbulent waters of the Niagara River Gorge at Whirlpool or Devil’s Hole state parks.

There are things to do in the area, but they are too few and too little known. Try an experiment: Ask an out-of-state friend about Goat Island. You’ll likely get a shrug, yet it’s the asset that best distinguishes the American side from Canadian: It puts you between the falls.

New York needs to do a much better job of publicizing the sights outside Niagara Falls State Park, while the city, itself, needs to do more to provide attractions of interest to the millions of people around the world who have heard of Niagara Falls but who show little interest in exploring beyond the park.

Cutting down some trees won’t do that.

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