BY JAMES HUFNAGEL
While the shock of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he wants to build a state-owned “lodge” (read hotel) on Goat Island in the Niagara Falls State Park is still sinking in with many local residents, a preliminary sample of public opinion so far seems to reflect growing opposition to the governor’s proposal.
Floating the trial balloon during his January 9 University at Buffalo “State of the State” speech (“On Goat Island we will create a year-round destination for tourism and build a world-class lodge with sweeping views of the Niagara River”), Cuomo’s scheme to establish overnight lodging on Goat Island would be in direct competition with the new downtown hotels that he and Dyster tout as the city’s salvation.
It would also constitute the first time in many decades, possibly a century or longer, if ever, that such accommodations have been present in the Olmsted Reservation park. A completely new dimension of the state’s ongoing commercial exploitation of Niagara Falls State Park.
Eight million tourists a year drive or are bused into Niagara Falls State Park on a state-owned parkway, parking on one of over 1500 parking spaces. They ride Maid of the Mist and tour Cave of the Winds, eat at Delaware North food stands and Top of the Falls restaurant, purchase gifts and souvenirs, and then leave on the same parkway without entering or spending money in the city of Niagara Falls, one of the poorest cities in the state.
A Goat Island “lodge” (it just seems so appropriate to wrap the word “lodge” in quote marks every time, since most people think of lodges as being wilderness retreats, not urban hostelries) was actually hinted at nearly three years ago.
During the summer of 2014 construction of a new State Parks Police barracks was started at the top of the Niagara Gorge. Since Gov. Cuomo, through his State Parks agency, shielded the project from public scrutiny by exempting it from the hearings and public comment periods required under SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act, the citizenry was unaware that a significant portion of the scenic Niagara Gorge was about to be taken up by a sprawling police complex until scores of trees were cut down and the site leveled by bulldozers.
At the time, it was rumored that the old barracks on Goat Island may be repurposed as some kind of overnight lodge or bed and breakfast for tourists.
Public opinion turned on articles in this newspaper decrying the selection of the gorge location, already being readied for the new facility. It wasn’t long before politicians like US Rep. Brian Higgins, then -NY Assemblyman John Ceretto, then- NY Senator George Maziarz and eventually Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster joined the bandwagon, the end result being that the police station was relocated to its present site across the parkway from the Maid of the Mist winter headquarters at the Schoellkopf, perfectly positioned to swoop in on the new Maid boatyard, rappelling down the rock walls of the gorge to rescue Glynn’s watercraft at a moment’s notice.
The controversy caused the opening of the new barracks to be delayed by almost two years, and in the interim there was no more talk of the old Goat Island building being converted into hotel rooms, at least outside of the State Parks Prospect Point administrative building and Delaware North’s corporate offices, as indistinguishable as the two are.
Cuomo’s game plan becomes evident when you consider the following.
Delaware North presently is approaching the end of its 20-year, $10.2 million contract with State Parks to operate food, beverage and gift shop concessions in Niagara Falls State Park.
On September 10, 2014, the day after his victory in the Democratic primary, Governor Cuomo was honored at a fundraising event at Delaware North owner Jeremy Jacobs’ opulent East Aurora estate. Tickets went for $25,000 per couple.
Last year the National Park Service booted Delaware North out of Yosemite, resulting in a $146 million (2014 gross revenues) hit to its bottom line. That’s not chump change, even for multi-billionaires like Jeremy Jacobs, Sr. and his family. A new “lodge” on Goat Island would probably go a long ways towards assuaging Jacobs’ bruised ego resulting from his humiliation at Yosemite.
Kicking off action against the lodge this week were two local environmental mainstays, Bob Baxter and Bob Borgatti of the Niagara Heritage Partnership (Borgatti also serves on the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area board) who wrote letters to the governor in an attempt to dissuade him from perpetrating yet another artificial incursion into what was supposed to be Olmsted’s natural haven.
“Did no trusted aide approach you quietly to say, “Governor, these are not good ideas.”? and “Do you stay awake at night trying to think of even more ways that State Parks can suck money from the business communities of Niagara Falls, NY?” are two of 29 questions Baxter, who is a retired NCCC Professor Emeritus of English, poses to Gov. Cuomo in his letter.
NFNHA board member Bob Borgatti, who with Paul Lamont co-wrote and produced the classic television documentary “Fading in the Mist,” which aired nationally on PBS, spotlighting the progressive and distressing sidelining of nature in pursuit of profit in Niagara Falls State Park, wrote the following: “I would suggest, as an alternative site for your lodge idea, that you consider… the Schoellkopf building, which currently sits unused on the DeVeaux campus… The old stone building is architecturally distinctive and historic. The grounds surrounding it are beautiful and it is adjacent to scenic areas such as Whirlpool Park, the Niagara Gorge, and Devil’s Hole. Best of all, it is not on Goat Island.”
The complete text of the letters is available at Niagaraheritage.org.