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Niagara Falls native helps revamp city parks, playgrounds

Seth Piccirillo rode his bike a lot while growing up in Niagara Falls, not far from the fringe of Hyde Park.

“Ironically, this year, because it seems everything is returning to childhood, I've been riding my bike more often because there are more trails,” said Piccirillo, community development director in his hometown for the last six years.

Longstanding and woeful health outcomes in the Buffalo Niagara region – which has the shortest life expectancy in New York State – have turned the Falls into a proving ground.

State and federal government, as well as nonprofit foundations, began to pour more money into the city several years ago as efforts to create a healthier Niagara Falls bubbled up from City Hall and the grassroots.

Piccirillo has been among those with an aim to breathe more health and wellness into city neighborhoods – largely through greater numbers of trail miles, fitness options and remade parks.

This year alone, more than $1 million flowed into the process.

"Parks and playgrounds aren't just an amenity,” Piccirillo said. “There's always a value assigned to how much people make an hour, or how much volunteer time is worth, but an hour that a resident can spend with their kid at a park is valuable. It's valuable to their community. It gives kids something constructive to do. It gives families places to gather together. That's why we're being so aggressive. We think it makes a difference."

Notable work includes:

  • $600,000 in Niagara River Greenway money to improve playgrounds in Jayne Park and along 91st Street, as well as open a weather-dependent ice skating rink this winter a block away from Niagara Falls State Park.
  • $360,000 in federal Housing and Urban Development grants toward development of an “Inclusionary Play Project” at Hyde Park, as well as a fitness trail at Liberty Park. The Peter and Elizabeth Tower and John R. Oishei foundations collectively added another $66,000 for the inclusionary play project.
  • $120,000 from the New York Health Foundation for a series of Summer in Your City fitness events, as well as toward the Hyde Park project. Fitness training continues from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Sept. 22 and 29, and from 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Oct. 1, all at Liberty Park, 19th Street at Forest Avenue.
  • $50,000 from state Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, for improvements to Garden Avenue Park.

“None of that comes from local taxpayer dollars,” said Piccirillo, a St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute graduate who holds a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in public administration from SUNY College at Brockport.

Piccirillo, 36, and his wife, Kelly, a Rochester native, met in college. She teaches first grade at Niagara Street Elementary School. The couple live in the LaSalle neighborhood of the city with their daughters, Tessa, 3 – who has become her father’s unofficial “playground tester” – and Nola, 11 months.

Piccirillo worked as legislative director for three years for former Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, then four years with the NFTA as manager of government affairs before he became community development director.

"This is my dream job,” he said. “I've always wanted to work in, and for, Niagara Falls, especially in the neighborhoods."

Tessa Villani watches as her son, Giani, 4, plays on the slide at Hyde Park playground in Niagara Falls this spring. An inclusionary playground is being built alongside it this month. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Q: You say about 40 projects have taken place since 2011 in city parks, playgrounds and recreational areas. Tourists and residents alike will benefit but mostly residents, right?

So often in the Falls, people think that the only activity is downtown. When you do something in the neighborhoods, people see it more immediately and it might give people more reasons to check out other things in their city, even if it's not in their neighborhood. It all comes down to place. It's a small city. We want people to get out of their own neighborhoods, but that pride of place is important also."

Q: Where do you ride your bike and get exercise now?

There's a new bike path along the old Robert Moses Parkway between LaSalle Waterfront Park, also new, near the Grand Island Bridge that goes all the way into Niagara Falls State Park. Now LaSalle is connected to downtown.

Growing up, I didn't go to the Gorge that often [because the Robert Moses Parkway cut it off]. It's been a new thing for me in the last six months or so. In my opinion, it's even more remarkable than the falls, because you get to hike it. Trying to make the connections between the residents and all these assets is what we're all about.

Q: Why an inclusionary playground at the 460-acre Hyde Park? What will it be like?

Hyde Park over the last 10 years has seen consistent improvement and investment. It's our largest park, the second-largest in New York State to Central Park, including the golf course. It's a park that all neighborhoods can get to, so it's our central gathering point. That's why we want to make sure it's a place for families, and especially kids, to enjoy.

The new project is a space for children who often get left behind. The cool thing about it is that it was voted on through participatory budgeting, so it's a project that residents prioritized. There will be a structure designed for wheelchair use, a swing set up for children who may have mobility issues. Everything is also designed for children who may be tactile learners or have behavioral needs. The important part is that it's also connected to the existing playground, so it creates one large program and children of all abilities can use it.

Group looks to change woeful health outcomes in Niagara Falls, one person at a time

Q: What are the just-completed Liberty Park improvements like?

An "American Ninja" style fitness course has been set up. There are hurdles, climbing. Users can sync their smartphones to it, so they can keep their times and make a game of it. We want to create opportunities there for kids in the 12-17 age range; same with the skate park in Hyde Park. It's the same reason we're adding basketball to Gill Creek. We're trying to give all ages their own spaces.

Q: What are the two or three most important things that have happened over the last decade in the Falls?

The neighborhood parks investment is important to us. On a larger scale, the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway changes the city's access to its number one asset, the water.

Q: What are the two or three things you'd like to see happen over the next decade?

There have been some new hotels and investment downtown. There needs to be more activities for both tourists and residents. We're a tourism-based economy. That's crucially important. Another important thing that needs to happen is functional employment training, especially for the trades and manufacturing. There are jobs in Western New York that are going unfilled and a lot of those are in trades and manufacturing. We have to make sure people have the skills to fill those jobs.

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