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Push still on for more recreational offerings around Niagara Falls

The outgoing director of Western New York's state parks said last week that a new effort to line up companies to provide more recreational opportunities near Niagara Falls is under discussion.

That proposal may include a request for construction of lodging either at Schoellkopf Hall, a historic building in DeVeaux Woods State Park near the Niagara River Gorge, or at Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown.

Mark W. Thomas, whose last day at State Parks is Wednesday, said there have been discussions, but no decisions, on the content of a new request for proposals for outdoor recreation opportunities in the state parks around Niagara Falls.

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed a lodge on Goat Island, which was howled down by preservationists and local officials.

Thomas said the idea of building lodging in Niagara Falls State Park, the main park at the cataracts that includes Goat Island, is dead.

"That's not discussed at all anymore," he said. "Could it be elsewhere? Potentially, but right now the focus is on what recreational activity enhancements could be wrought."

"We are focused on the governor’s vision of an outdoor recreation economy," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development Corp., a subsidiary of Empire State Development.

"Parks and ESD are working collectively on a number of items to accomplish this goal. These plans are in their infancy but as they get firmed up and closer to procurement you’ll be hearing more," Schoepflin said in a statement emailed to The Buffalo News.

State Parks issued requests for proposals in late April, giving companies two months to present plans for outdoor recreational facilities in Fort Niagara State Park, as well as at Artpark and Joseph Davis State Park in Lewiston.

The proposals suggest recreational facilities such as zip lines and rope challenge courses, as well as the construction of cabins.

Last year's Niagara Falls request for proposals suggested similar recreational ideas at the parks in Niagara Falls, as well as lodging in smaller state parks along the gorge, such as Whirlpool and DeVeaux Woods. The lodging project was to have been combined with other recreational ideas.

However, only one bidder came forward, and its proposal was rejected by the state.

But while lodging in the main state park "is not being discussed," Thomas said other lodging options are being discussed internally.

"What I will say is, there are opportunities for such, both at Fort Niagara and at Schoellkopf Hall," he said.

Schoellkopf Hall in DeVeaux Woods State Park, Niagara Falls, on Dec. 20, 2016. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Lodging at Fort Niagara is not a new idea.

As far back as 1996, Youngstown developer W. Kirk Hastings offered a $4.8 million proposal to convert the Officers Club and Commandant's House at the fort into a hotel, restaurant and theater, while State Parks suggested a bed-and-breakfast in the administration building.

Hastings battled preservationists in court, a fight that ended abruptly with his death in September 2001. The project fell through.

In 2004, the state issued a new request for proposals for lodging at the fort. Not until 2010 was a deal made, when William Huntress of Amherst and his company, Acquest Development, signed a contract to convert the Navy Barracks into a 48-room inn, with 12 more rooms in the Commandant's House.

The $20 million project was pronounced dead in 2015.

"The economy tanked and the funding they thought they had in place to move forward did not materialize, so they withdrew," Thomas said.

The current bid documents for outdoor recreation at Fort Niagara suggest facilities along the Lake Ontario shore east of the fort, and near the southern entrance to the 284-acre park.

The document said the Navy Barracks and the Commandant's House are "available for adaptive reuse," though that is not part of the current bidding.

The reuse of those buildings "may be the subject of a future procurement opportunity issued by State Parks if sufficient interest is manifested," the offering says.

Back in Niagara Falls, Schoellkopf Hall, built in 1926 as an Episcopal school for poor boys and orphans, later became a county school for troubled teens and then was taken over as part of an auxiliary campus by Niagara University. The state bought the property in 2000 and dubbed it DeVeaux Woods State Park.

The state sought developers for the building in 2004, but nothing came of that.

"Major investments are being made and will continue to be made by the State of New York to enhance the recreational offerings in these parks," Thomas said. "More RFPs will be coming out. Enhancing the recreational opportunities in the area will occur. There's no doubt. It's just getting the right combination of businesses that would step forward to do that programming."

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