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Happy trails after Wilson Foundation's gift: 'It's like Christmas in October.'

As executive director of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, Gregory D. Stevens is dedicated to improving and expanding Western New York's burgeoning trail system.

So what does it feel like when the region's trail system receives a $50 million gift?

"If your passion is healthy outdoor living and the restoration and improvement of the Niagara River Waterfront, this is like Christmas in October," Stevens said Wednesday morning of the major philanthropic gift by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

"It doesn't get much better. We're very lucky that this is one of their top priorities and they've chosen to put this on the table and work with us to figure out how best to invest it. I'm super excited. It's going to let us do more and do it faster that we would have been able to."

The Wilson Foundation announced the $100 million gift Wednesday, on what would have been the Buffalo Bills founder's 100th birthday, to his native Detroit and adopted hometown of Buffalo. The donation to Buffalo includes $50 million dedicated to remaking Buffalo's LaSalle Park into a signature park, and $50 million toward a completed regional trail system.

"It's a really exciting moment in time for the foundation and for both of these communities in Michigan and in Western New York," said J.J. Tighe, the foundation's director of parks and trails initiative. "A foundation isn't going to build these trails, these are communities finding a way to connect within their communities, that's one of the most important aspects of this.

"A lot of great work has been done in these communities, and we're excited to learn more to work with these communities and continue to be a catalyst to bridge these regional gaps in Western New York."

“It’s really great that Western New York is receiving attention from the Wilson Foundation like this," said Ann S. Bergantz, a member of the board of directors of the Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail, which will extend from Orchard Park to Ashford. "They’ll be able to do things for the community that otherwise couldn’t happen.”

Private funds like those provided by the Wilson Foundation are invaluable, Stevens said.

"Private money is different than public money," he said. "Private money moves faster, it's more specific, there are fewer strings attached. Having access to their funding will accelerate the whole program."

The funds will not only go towards constructing new trails, but also improving the existing ones.

"What we have now is a trail that actually connects, but some of it ... is very out of date and would fall far short of a world-class parkway," Stevens said. "We have plenty more to do.

"We want to see a system where people feel safe. The acid test is if a Swiss family came here with two children and wanted to ride their bikes from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, would they feel comfortable the whole way? And right now the answer would be no. We need signage, places to stop, places to have a drink, places to go to the bathroom. We have a long way to go, and there are plenty of things to achieve.

"With Buffalo and Niagara Falls connected, it could be the best two-city greenway in the country. There are 8.8 million people that visit Niagara Falls each year, but most just get out of their bus and leave. If we can turn that around, we can have them look at the Niagara River as the ecological treasure it is."

Tighe said that no specific areas for additions or enhancements have been targeted at this early point.

"It will be based on where there is community support," he said. "One thing that is really interesting: How do you connect to the waterfront? It's not just the communities that are adjacent to the water, but those across the City of Buffalo. And how do you link the City of Buffalo with other communities in Western New York? This is a starting line to see where we can be helpful."

Western New York's trail system has expanded significantly in recent years.

• The Niagara River Greenway, envisioned as a trail network from downtown Buffalo to Youngstown, will be fulfilled in the next two years, thanks in large part to a previous commitment of $6.5 million from the Wilson Foundation. Greenway said the Wilson Foundation's grant enabled his commission to apply for state funding, which amounted to $17 million, and will enable the completion of a 7.4-mile trail from North Tonawanda to Niagara Falls through the Town of Wheatfield. "That was a huge step forward in the connectivity of our shoreline trail system in Western New York."

• The Town of Tonawanda's 4-mile Rails to Trails path has received rave reviews from joggers, bicyclists and dog-walkers since its opening in 2016.

• A 27-mile trail along an old rail line from Orchard Park to Ashford will be constructed, it was announced in August, after the nonprofit Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail and the Buffalo Pittsburgh Railroad signed a 49-year agreement.

• In February, a recommendation was made to Amherst that it place further emphasis on building out its trails and pathways.

"Trails that democratize public space ... have the potential to connect us all," the foundation said in its release. "The Foundation’s contribution to that work stands on the shoulders of these community partners and their work, while offering all of us a chance to not just dream of, but realize, a stronger region and a more connected future through Mr. Wilson’s generosity."

The foundation will give $40 million to connect communities with a completed regional trail system; the other $10 million will be set aside in an endowment for sustaining the trail system. The funds are broken down similarly with LaSalle Park: $40 million for construction, $10 million in an endowment for park maintenance.

"The maintenance part is really important," said James Meerdink, project director for the nonprofit Parks & Trails New York. "You need money to maintain a trail. You can't just build them and let them sit there."

Tighe echoed that the maintenance funds are there to ensure the enhancement of the trails.

"We want to make sure they are sustainable 50, 60 years down the road," he said, "and just as enjoyable as the day the ribbons are cut on them."

Meerdink said trails also are economic drivers, benefiting local users while attracting hikers and bikers from out of town.

The Wilson Foundation announced Wednesday that it will award three types of grants to trail-related projects: organizational capacity, trail planning and matching funds for trail physical improvements.

Additional details the foundation is seeking from projects include:

  • Primary focus on safe, nonmotorized transportation and the elimination of gaps in regionally significant trails
  • Projects that connect to more than one RCWJRF Program Area will be given stronger consideration; visit RCWJRF.org to learn more
  • Broad regional vision to improve access and connectivity both within and between communities
  • Demonstrated community engagement and support
  • Promote community building and programming surrounding specific trail projects, including volunteer support
  • Strong public private partnerships including government, community partners and trail organizations
  • Leveraged investment
  • Multijurisdictional projects are encouraged
  • Long-term sustainability and maintenance plans
  • Applicants must be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization 

"The Wilson Foundation has been great, they are digging in deep to really understand what the opportunities are here," Stevens said. "We're talking to them, everyone is talking to them. They aren't waiting for opportunities to come to them, they are seeking them out and trying to find the most impactful trail projects.

"We've had a very constructive dialogue with them. I think our missions are highly aligned. We're trying to provide the connectivity that they are talking about."

News Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this story.

Ralph Wilson's biggest gift yet: $100M to transform LaSalle Park, trails

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