BY NATE MCMURRAY
As you may have heard, a brand new, state of the art Welcome Center is coming to Grand Island. The Governor visited last week and he mentioned it specifically in his speech. I’ve been pushing for it as soon as I heard of the possibility, and so has our Chamber of Commerce, led by Eric Fiebelkorn’s efforts. It’s a fantastic thing!
And we are not just talking about something like the old dump of a building near the roundabout. That place is a nightmare. If I had the power to tear it down tomorrow, I would. Yes, I was thankful that they put in the new giant flag and did some other subtle improvements. But let’s be honest. Even at its height that old building served one purpose—selling bus tours to lost tourists on behalf of a private company. Actually, it might have been a decent gas station once, long ago. I can’t remember. But it was never truly a Welcome Center. It was a trap.
The new Welcome Center will feature touch screens that allow people to explore our region on their own (without a paid tour; can you think of anything worse than sitting on a bus getting lectured to by some droning guide?), a museum highlighting key moments in Grand Island and Western New York’s pasts, and a mini-farmer’s market and café featuring locally produced goods.
How do I know? I’ve been to the one in Long Island.
I drove down this weekend, and it’s gorgeous! The outside features a playground where children can climb on a giant whale. The playground surface is that spongy material that you can fall on and not get hurt. They had this Long Island Walk of Fame with stars the likes of Andy Kauffman, Walt Whitman, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Inside were the kiosks, and giant screens showing pictures of Long Island villages and vineyards (imagine bushels of bursting green grapes). And they had this museum with whale bones, prohibition era flasks, and fishing spears. Again, it was nothing like that shack near the roundabout. There was no agent pressuring you to buy knick-knacks or bus tours.
By far the best part of the center was the local goods for sale. I had pumpkin hot chocolate (made from local pumpkin puree) and some Greek fig yogurt in a glass jar. Everything, from the chips to the sausages, to the honey and cheese, was produced nearby. I look forward to the day when our Center features goods from our growing farmer’s market.
Should Visitor’s Centers of this sort be stopped under Federal Law?
Federal law does prevent States from building much more than restrooms and vending machines along the Thruways. But there are exceptions. The purpose of the law was to prevent the destruction of local economies—think about the Route 66 effect, where all those local businesses faded and died after Interstate Thruways came in. But there is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. If you want to help local economies, the Welcome Center in Long Island seems to be doing just that! From the delicious goods for sale to the culture and history represented, it’s a show case for the local economy downstate and certainly not a profit center for Albany.
The Long-Range Planning Committee has interviewed four planning and engineering firms to work as consultants on our Master Plan. They selected Clark Patterson Lee, which is a well-known, local firm that has worked on Master Plans throughout the region, including current work on the City of Tonawanda’s new Master Plan and Local Water Front Revitalization Plan. The Long-Range Planning Committee’s recommendation will go the County for ratification (the County is providing $45,000—we applied for a grant and got it!). Finally, the Town Board will approve and officially hire the planner. Having a Master Plan is crucial to not only things like controlling development and growth, but to getting grants to improve our community. This is splendid progress.
It’s not everyday someone gives you a check for $67,000
The Town has a very active and competent Cable & Communications Advisory Board. Led by their Town Board Liaison, Beverly Kinney, they reviewed the Town’s Franchise Agreement with Time Warner (now Charter) with a fine-tooth comb and found that they owed us $67,000 for charges related to additional subscribers. Incredibly, Time Warner did not push back. They just dropped off a check at my office because they knew they owed the cash. The Town Board is taking this check and using it to start a new trust for technology related capital projects for the Town. Thus, for example, we might choose to use the money to establish a better network at Town Hall, which will make us more efficient and ultimately save money.
And on a related note, the Broadband Feasibility Study is going forward. We had our first meeting, and it went very well. We are working hard to convince the school to participate in this project. I’ll tell you why. If the school is on board, we can get more grant money. And with two young children, I don’t understand why the School Board wouldn’t want to jump on this project that will only benefit the school— our kids would have better educational opportunities and that tech wing would really hum with lightning fast connections. We don’t want to tap their budget, we want to leverage their power! The community benefits when the school and the town work together for these broader goals. Both the School Board and the school are essential parts of this community. Hopefully, both symbolically and literally, we will get connected together through our broadband work.
On a related note, have you checked out our new website? It’s a work in progress, but I must say a vast improvement over the outdated site we had before. We are finally out of the AOL, Myspace, Angelfire era with a site that looks good, is easy to navigate, and works on all platforms. Yes, we need to edit and update. But the site came out like we envisioned. Please check out the photo section with work from award winning photographer John Witt. His shots highlight the best of Grand Island. And if you have great shots of our beautiful oasis, please send them to us! Also, check out the interactive maps we created (with a ton of help from a great guy named Justin). Again, remember it is not a finished product—but we are pretty darn proud of it!! We welcome your feedback. If something is missing or isn’t right, let us know!
Nate McMurray is the Supervisor of the Town of Grand Island.