By Justin Sondel firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission is ready to get back to work on one of its major projects.
The commission, which operated without casino revenue funding — the bulk of its budget — during the four-year dispute between New York state and the Seneca Nation of Indians over its 2002 gaming compact, has again set the wheels in motion on capital improvements at the U.S. Customs House and Post Office on Whirlpool Street.
Thomas DeSantis, the city’s senior planner and a member of the commission’s board, said the group has “reengaged” Riggs Ward, the Virginia-based consultant on the project.
“The consultant is moving into the final design,” he said.
The 1863 building is being converted into an Underground Railroad interpretive center and U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, which will be attached to the Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center, set to enter the final construction phase this year.
Slaves used the Suspension Bridge, which crossed the gorge to Canada in nearly the same spot that the Whirlpool Bridge spans the border today, as an escape route to freedom in Canada.
Harriet Tubman recounted urging slaves she was guiding to their freedom to take a moment to look at the mighty Falls to the west as they took their last steps toward freedom in 1856 in her biography, written and published by Sarah Bradford in 1869.
The commission was unable to accomplish any major steps on the Customs House project, located across the street from the Whirlpool Bridge, during the gaming compact dispute.
The group received a payment of $350,000 in 2008, but did not receive another payment until September of 2013 when another $1.75 million was delivered, the last of the funding the commission is set to receive.
With the with held casino revenues delivered the group can again aggressively begin pursuing the project, DeSantis said.
“We were unsure of when or whether the casino money would come in,” DeSantis said. “The actual capitol improvements will be undertaken by the commission using the casino money.”
DeSantis said the commission remained active while awaiting the funding, working on other projects and further researching the role the Customs House and Niagara Falls played in the story of the Underground Railroad.
The commission also secured a grant to develop an application that will allow tourists to take a computer-guided walking tour of Underground Railroad sites.
Several commissioners also attended a Harriet Tubman symposium where historical interpretation of the secret network used to help slaves escape to Canada was a main topic of discussion.
“The point of that was to see what other groups are doing with Underground Railroad interpretation across the state,” DeSantis said.
Mark Onesi, who serves on the commission’s board, said the group had to be judicious with the limited funds available during the casino dispute, but was able to advance the Heritage Area Management Plan, one of its most important projects to date.
“Until you have your management plan in place you’re not going to do much else,” Onesi said. “Because that’s your document you have to follow.”
The plan, which was compiled by the land planning, design and environmental consulting firm EDR Companies, was approved by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in July of 2012.
The lengthy document — 229 pages — pieces together the history of the freedom movement in the Niagara region, naming 27 historic sites in the city and county related to slavery, the Underground Railroad or abolitionists.
Onesi said that while the commission’s board meetings were not always well-attended the group has been able to continue progressing key projects while waiting on its casino revenues.
“I think that our committee, while we didn’t have a great number of people showing up to the meetings and that, the people that did show up for the meetings were focused on the management plan, the future of the interpretive center and this walking tour that can get things started,” Onesi said.
Onesi said he can understand that people might wonder what the commission has been doing, being that there has been a delay in the actual capital improvements at the Customs House.
But the group has been doing what it can to make certain that they would be prepared to act quickly when the casino revenues were released, he said.
“All along we’ve had the contractor working on what types of displays, what should the displays have in them,” Onesi said. “What kind of story do we want to tell somebody that walks into the Customs House about the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls?”
Onesi said the important thing for the committee going forward will be to make certain that the management plan is implemented, and that it doesn’t end up another document collecting dust in storage.
“It’s really nice to have a management plan and most commissions get one, they put it on a shelf and you don’t always see the fruits of it,” Onesi said. “I think once that interpretive center is there the naysayers are going to say, ‘oh, well they really were doing something.’”
Onesi said, as with any organization, there have been a few glitches, most of them related to their lack of casino revenues.
But, the experience has been a positive one for Onesi and he sees a bright future for heritage tourism in the Falls, he said.
“I haven’t been disappointed.”Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257