NIAGARA THIS WEEK
NIAGARA THIS WEEK AUGUST 12, 2005
Parks to Niagara: "We're listening"
COMMISSIONER FOR DAY GIVES RESIDENTS THEIR SAY
BY PAUL FORSYTH
NIAGARA FALLS — Niagara residents have made it clear that the Niagara Parks Commission must continue its role as protector of the natural beauty of the Falls and the Niagara River corridor, and that any new developments must be tasteful and must not conflict
with the park-like setting the NPC is so famous for.
That being said, they're also willing to see new developments on NPC lands so the Crown agency can remain financially self-sufficient in the face of the ever-growing number of private sector attractions nestling up against NPC property in the Falls.
Parks Commission brass say they're listening, and will incorporate the views of dozens of residents and agencies that took part in brainstorming sessions in the spring into its long-term plans.
The NPC took a public relations pounding in the spring of last year when it stunned many Niagara residents by announcing plans for a gondola ride at the brink of the Falls at Table Rock. It fought valiantly to win over residents who thought the development would mar the beauty of one of the world's most recognized natural wonders, but in the end scrapped the idea.
NPC chair Jim Williams, who was appointed head of the agency's board of directors right about at the time the NPC was set to announce the gondola idea, says he is committed to listening to what residents want when it comes to future planning.
The series of workshops held in April, along with an Internet survey asking people about all things NPC, were part of what Williams says will be an ongoing consultation with the public.
"I hope you found these workshops a demonstration of this commitment," he said as the NPC presented the results of the public feedback at Legends on the Niagara last Thursday. Many of the people who took part in the workshops, organized by St. Catharines-based communications firm OEB International, were present.
John Armstrong, vice-president of OEB, said the workshops showed Niagara residents only want "unique and tasteful" developments on NPC land that won't clash with the park-like atmosphere.
For 120 years, the NPC has served as the guardian of the Falls and the Niagara River corridor, protecting it from what would undoubtedly have been rampant development over the years. But the agency, which maintains a whopping 1,720 hectares of land from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, says it now finds itself competing against an ever-growing number of private sectoir tourism attractions in Niagara Falls.
Combine that with the fact that the NPC receives no government money and the fact that it spends more than $20 million a year to maintain non-revenue generating operations such as roads, bridges, parks and public washrooms, and it isn't difficult to see the financial challenges facing it.
The agency says it has seen its tourism market share eroded since 2000, and major new private sector projects such as the Great Wolf Lodge could potentially continue that trend.
The gondola idea, which people clearly felt violated the NPC's traditional stewardship role, was one idea to bring in more money. The NPC, which is in the midst of planning out its next three years of operations, is undoubtedly pondering new money-making ideas.
Last August, as part of a series in the wake of the gondola plan, Niagara this Week printed details of an internal NPC master plan that described a "bold new vision" for the commission that included various proposed projects with a price tag of $386 million.
Those ideas included transforming the two historic hydro generating stations above Table Rock into attractions once ownership of the buildings is transferred to the NPC from the power companies that own them, and an amusement-park like ride that would take visitors into the river gorge.
The master plan also proposed reducing the Niagara Parkway to one lane through Queen Victoria Park at times, and closing it to public vehicles completely during the peak tourism season.
Exactly what type of developments the NPC will embark on isn't clear, because the legislation the Parks Commission operates under means its board meetings aren't open to the public. It's likely most of the new developments could occur in and around Queen Victoria Park, which generates 60 per cent of NPC revenue.
But the spring brainstorming sessions showed Niagara residents like the idea of transforming the power stations into developments such as a hydro museum or visitors' centre, and they're willing to see national fast food chains set up shop on NPC land.
They'd also like to see ice skating become a regular attraction on NPC property in the winter, and while they want the agency to continue to maintain the manicured look of its parkland in high-traffic areas, they're open to the idea of allowing other NPC lands to go natural.
The idea of closing the Parkway during peak times also went over well with the workshop participants, the NPC says.
Among the many ideas tossed out by brainstorm-ing participants were capitalizing on the area's historical sites by creating a Gettysburg-type attraction, that the NPC look at outsourcing food operations, and charging admission fees at Table Rock.
Williams said the feedback "validated a number of ideas" already being considered by the NPC, and said the ideas will play an important part in future NPC planning.