Parlato: Plan to dewater Falls is bad for business

There has been a lot reported in local media about a recent New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPR) proposal to dewater Niagara Falls. 

“Dewatering is necessary for two reasons,” a report from NYSOPR says. “The existing 115 year old bridges need to be demolished. The river channel must be dewatered in order to demolish and remove [two] bridges.

“(And) the piers and abutments for the replacement bridges must be constructed `in the dry,’ to allow for safe construction procedures and to ensure that the new foundations are firmly anchored to bedrock.”

This footbridge was built in 1901 without dewatering the Falls.

The same view without the water, the photo taken in 1969. You decide which spectacle would be more likely to draw tourists with money to spend. Officials claim that the pile of rocks below will represent a bonanza for the tourism industry here.

The first bridge links the City of Niagara Falls to Green Island and the second links Green to Goat Island. Both bridges span the rapids about 1000 feet from the brink of the American Falls. Both are currently pedestrian bridges – although park vehicles occasionally utilize them and they are wide enough for single lane traffic.

Presently, the preferred Parks’ proposal [out of three options] is to stop the flow of water going over the American Falls from September to April [2019-2020] while contractors build concrete archways that mimic the historic bridges installed in 1901 that were built as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s master vision for the park. Perhaps the biggest change from old to new is that the new bridges will be designed wider so that it can accommodate two-way vehicular traffic. The $37 million plan would see engineers design a temporary dam — called a cofferdam — just upstream of the island, and the water would then be diverted down the Horseshoe Falls which flows mainly on the Canadian side.

Local officials are predicting that the dewatering will create a boost in tourism. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster likened the plans for the dewatering to the attraction created by the historic 2012 tightrope crossing of daredevil Nik Wallenda. Assemblyman John Ceretto told the Lockport Union Sun & Journal he expects a tourism boom.

A preliminary report by the engineering firm Greenman Pedersen, selected to design the proposed plans, states, “Dewatering is expected initially (to) be a tourism draw (a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the falls and river channel without water)”.

John Percy, CEO of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation, told CNN that the dewatering is “an exciting — even an enormous — marketing opportunity for us.”

Much of the plan to dewater Niagara Falls is debatable:

• Do the historic bridges need to be replaced with concrete replicas or could they be repaired?

• Is dewatering necessary if the bridges are replaced? The bridges were built in 1901 without dewatering the falls.

• What environmental risks are associated with the plan? it was reported that, for instance, trees along the shoreline died following the 1969 dewatering.

• Is the real motive behind the plan to convert the two pedestrian bridges into vehicular bridges; the plan calls for making the new bridges wide enough for two-way traffic. Goat Island lost sizeable amounts of greenspace with the last “park improvement” plan. Making the island more traffic friendly may mean loss of greenspace to make additional parking lots. Delaware North operates concessions on Goat Island and their business is dependent on how many people visit Goat Island. Park officials have not fully addressed the issue of whether the bridges will be open to tourists’ vehicles, despite the bridge being widened.

• It is sometimes seen that business interests combined with consultants looking to earn fees sometimes drive government projects in a particular direction. With millions literally to be made by design engineers, plus the unique opportunity to boast of having engineered the dewatering of Niagara Falls, is this project driven by need or opportunity?

• The chorus of officials declaring in unison that dewatering will create a tourist industry boom without any data to back up their claims is at least odd, and a cynical person might suspect the chorus was orchestrated; i.e. the project will sell better to the public if people believe it will be lucrative for the tourism industry.

“ [The dewatering of the American Niagara Falls] will gain worldwide attention.”

State Parks spokesman Randy Simons called the prospect of a dry falls “a once-in-a-life-time” event “because beyond fixing these bridges, there is no reason to dewater the falls.”

People came from all over the world to see the falls turned off, said Michelle Kratts, who served as Niagara Falls city historian until this past December.

“It’s the nature of curiosity. You want to see what’s underneath, to see its skeleton,” Kratts told the Buffalo News.

In 1969, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted water away from the American Falls to study erosion. Nothing was changed, after the International Joint Commission recommended that no remedial action should be done.

But, with the dewatered falls, it was found “what’s underneath” which was a pile of broken rocks, tangled tree trunks and at least two dead bodies, along with coins tossed in by tourists over the years. The coins were removed by the bucketful by park workers.

But, as for people from all over the world coming to see the dewatered falls, officials may want to examine the newspaper reports of 1969 which was the last [and only time] the falls was dewatered.

While newspaper accounts of 1969 reported that overall attendance was up at Niagara Falls State Park, officials were quoted as saying that a majority of the visitors weren’t tourists but day-tripping local curiosity seekers.

In a September 1969 article titled “Tourism 1969: It Wasn’t a Good Year,” Niagara Falls Gazette writer Joe Donaldson wrote, “The visitors season, circa 1969, has gone amidst cries of anguish up and down tourist alley. Initially billed as a super year for tourist operators, the year of the big buck, the season fell flat on its face.

“At least that’s what people in the tourist business are saying, as they moan that business is off as much as 40 percent from last year.”

Another article, also from September 1969, said “Local tourism is suffering badly this summer because despite record numbers of people visiting the dewatered falls, tourist attraction and motel and hotel people say they aren’t staying and they aren’t spending money.”

Gazette writer Greg Mitchell described the 1969 tourist season: “Attendance on the reservation has been up all summer, thanks to the dewatering project, but the crowds have been made up predominantly of local people. Thus, the tourist trade (hotel, motel, restaurant, souvenir business) has not enjoyed a banner year — especially considering the year it feels it should be having with the once in a lifetime dry falls attraction.”

Mitchell quotes an unnamed state parks spokesman.

“’Everybody expected it to be a big year — I guess it’s not,’ the spokesman said. ‘We’ve gotten mostly local people, not additional tourists. The motels aren’t doing anything.”

In a nutshell, a headline from the August 28, 1969 edition of the Niagara Gazette, sums it all up: “Quiet Tourist Season in 1969 — Dry Falls Blamed for Decline”.

Currently, it is estimated that around eight million people come to Niagara Falls, N.Y., each year to see the falls. Most of those visits occur between May and September. The dewatering proposal plans for a restoration of the flow of water over the American Falls prior to the beginning of the main tourist season which starts traditionally with a bang on Memorial Day weekend.

However, like any complicated construction project, this one may experience delays and work may extend into or through the short tourism season. And, if history repeats itself, people will not come “from all over the world to see the falls turned off.” It’s more likely they’ll come from Grand Island or Cheektowaga.

In the end, the Canadian tourism industry may be the beneficiaries of the plan. According to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “A plan that could see the American side of Niagara Falls go dry for a period of time to rebuild two bridges might be a boon to Canadian tourism.”

It seems simple: Water rushing over Niagara Falls equals tourism dollars. Divert all the water to the Canadian side and American tourism dollars may get diverted, as well.

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