Niagara Gazette


February 26, 2014

With casino cash in place, work U.S. Custom House is on track

With casino cash in place, work U.S. Custom House is on track

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.

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