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Waterkeeper envisions a hub for next generation of environmental stewards

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has already worked to remove toxic pollutants from the Buffalo River and restore the shoreline habitat.

Now, it wants to leave its imprint in another way to advance the region’s “Rust-to-Blue” transition.

The environmental organization wants to build Waterways Center. Waterkeeper officials envision it as an anchor facility uniting environmental stewardship, education, water access and commerce on a campus-like setting somewhere along the “quiet water” of the river’s corridor between Old Bailey Woods and Canalside.

“It’s the right time now to go for it,” said Jill Jedlicka, Waterkeeper’s executive director. “It’s more real than just an idea now.”

The center would offer:

• Great Lakes and environmental education, both for grade school and high school students as well as university and post-grad researchers with on-site laboratories.
• Outdoor recreation programs and water access targeting the eco-tourism market.
• Office and retail space focusing on water-based public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
• A four-season “active zone” including environment and water-focused training and education.
• A permanent home for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s offices and a program center.

“This hub would be active,” said Jennifer Fee, Waterkeeper’s marketing manager. “It activates the waterfront the way Canalside activates the waterfront, but in a different way.”

A conceptual design shows a yet-to-be determined spot along the Buffalo River that could be used to build Waterways Center. (Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper)

For now, Waterways Center doesn’t have a location, blueprints, a price tag or the dollars to build it.

Jedlicka said all of those could come soon, after Waterkeeper quietly works with partners from the water-based business community, academic institutions and public and not-for-profit organizations.

“We haven’t determined the business model yet,” Jedlicka said. “All of that is open right now.”

It does have a couple of conceptual designs.

Rep. Brian Higgins said Waterkeeper's work has been a national model for progress in cleaning and restoring water and habitat. The Waterways Center would enable it to both showcase and enhance its accomplishments, Higgins said.

A decade and $75 million later, Buffalo River habitat restoration is complete

"A combination of clean water, infrastructure improvements and renewed waterfront energy is drawing people and development to the Buffalo River like we haven’t seen in generations," Higgins said. "Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s plan for the Waterways Center builds on that progress, delivering another destination that lends to Waterkeeper’s long-standing mission to connect people to water.”

Waterways Center would be a place to help forge a new legacy for the Buffalo waterfront, Jedlicka said. It'll be designed to enhance the water-based economy here, establish a permanent connection to the water for the community and re-brand the Buffalo Niagara region "as a healthy outdoor recreation and eco-tourism corridor."

Is Waterkeeper modeling its center after one in another city?

Not exactly. Waterkeeper officials said they hope to take the best ideas from places like the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., the Wild Center at Tupper Lake and the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center on the Delmarva peninsula with an even broader community-based scope.

“We want to make this Western New York and lower Great Lakes-centric,” Jedlicka said.

A second conceptual design shows how Waterways Center could create a "permanent community connection" to the waterfront. (Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper)

Waterkeeper’s request-for-proposal remains open until Oct. 15. It targets prospective real estate consultants capable of developing and managing the center’s construction.

“The desired location for the center is ‘quiet water’ of the Buffalo River corridor with the potential to align targeted, water-based development with a priority for ecological restoration, green spaces and outdoor adventure and paddle sports,” the RFP states.

Waterkeeper officials said the Waterways Center’s primary goal would be to advance the next phase of the region’s “Rust-to-Blue” transition that will provide universal community access through water-based programming and connections between the land and water.

It’ll highlight the region’s history, for sure. But, the focus will be on collaborative problem-solving and water stewardship for the next generation, Jedlicka said.

“We’re referring to it as a permanent community connection to the water,” Jedlicka said.

Waterkeeper, which captured the prestigious Thiess International Riverprize two years ago this week for its work restoring the Buffalo River, mobilizes teams of citizen scientists and as many as 3,000 volunteers annually for shoreline cleanups and restoration work around Western New York.

Jedlicka said cleaning up and restoring the Buffalo River and other local shorelines from a century's worth of pollution and degradation was only the first step. Maintaining that momentum and stewarding shorelines is the next step.

Nick Kivinen, in back,  Joe Spellman, left, Jessica Fike and Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper senior community engagement coordinator Elizabeth Robbe, right, look for evidence of microplastics in sieves. Volunteers from Labatt USA partnered with representatives from Waterkeeper and were field-testing a section of Ellicott Creek for evidence of microplastics along a creek bank near Amherst State Park on Thursday.  (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

It takes a long-term vision and will require sustained labor and energy to accomplish those goals, and the Waterways Center would provide a central hub from which to run those types of efforts, Waterkeeper officials said.

"We need to relearn how to be a Great Lakes city," Jedlicka said.

The Waterways Center concept is the latest in a series of projects unveiled recently that are designed to build eco-tourism along the Buffalo River.

The Western New York Land Conservancy continues pursuing development of a 1.5-mile urban nature trail along the former DL&W rail line between Canalside and Solar City.

The projects aren't related.

Waterkeeper officials said synergy between Waterways Center and any like-minded projects in the Buffalo River corridor is always possible.

Once Waterkeeper receives responses to its request-for-proposal, Jedlicka said the organization will continue its "due diligence" investigating options for the Waterways Center. Community involvement will continue to be important, she said.

If all goes well, Waterkeeper could narrow down a site within a few months, with groundbreaking and completion of the center within two to three years.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, and it’s going to happen quickly,” Jedlicka said.

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