By Justin Sondel firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — It seemed as though the Maid of the Mist’s fleet of tour boats might be trapped in the icy Niagara all winter at times this year but the attraction operators used their newly built marine crane to lift the water vessels out of the choppy river and onto wooden blocks at the company’s new storage site on the American side of the Niagara Gorge in late October.
The Maid of the Mist faced tight construction deadlines, legal challenges and public criticism, but owner James Glynn was on hand this fall to watch two of his boats come to rest at the edge of the river on 25-foot-thick concrete pads built this year at the former Schoellkopf Power Station site.
“It’s very gratifying that we’re here and everything’s in place,” Glynn said that day. “We’ll be ready to start in the spring from the American side.”
The Maid of the Mist, which has taken tourists on up-close tours of the Falls for more than 140 years and has been owned by the Glynn family since 1971, lost its rights to operate the attraction on the Canadian side of the gorge in an open bidding process in 2009 to the California-based tour boat company Hornblower Cruises and Entertainment.
Hornblower will take control of the winter docking site, located on the Canadian side, at the beginning of 2014, leaving the Maid with no way to store their fleet.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a deal between the Maid of the Mist, and the New York Power Authority, in which the state would see the company invest $32 million into the Schoellkopf Power Station site to convert it to a boat storage facility and enhance the grounds to make them more attractive to tourists — with renderings of interpretive signage and rock climbers — during a visit to Niagara Falls last December, 2012. As part of the deal the company agreed to pay an additional $105 million over the remaining 30 years of the 40-year, no-bid contract signed in 2002.
Not everyone was happy with the deal. Representatives from Hornblower Cruises challenged the Maid’s no-bid contract in New York State Supreme Court, contending that the alteration of the original contract was grounds to reopen the contract for bidding. That challenge was struck down by state supreme court justice Catherine Nugent-Panepinto in late August, though Hornblower has appealed the decision.
In addition, the Maid saw opposition from historic preservation groups, both in the form of public outcry and legal challenges, with concerns about the alteration of the historic site where buildings at the Schoellkopf Power Station tumbled into the gorge in June of 1956.
The Niagara Falls Commission on Historic Preservation and Buffalo Niagara Preservation both complained of a lack of transparency from NYPA and state parks officials when they were seeking information on plains for the site and historic artifacts found during construction.
Both groups were satisfied after being granted a site visit, but state officials only agreed to grant access to the site after the groups’ complaints were reported in the Gazette and other press accounts.
The Niagara Preservation Coalition, a group formed this year by long-time Niagara County researcher and activist Louis Ricciuti, sued the Maid of the Mist on several counts, claiming that the company, the state and NYPA pushed through key environmental reviews and skirted historic preservation law in order to give the company enough time to complete the docking facility before winter.
The state had successfully pushed to have the site named to the federal registry of historic places, and they were successful in their efforts with the site being added to the list in February.
In the end the Maid was able to complete the construction of its marine crane and pull its boats from the water before winter descended on the Niagara River.
Kevin Keenan, a spokesman for the company, said that support from Cuomo, local officials and members of the public, along with the fast work of construction crews, allowed the Maid to come through a tough year.
“The support we received was really overwhelming,” Keenan said.
Now they look ahead to a year where they will be operating from only one side of the gorge for the first time in the history of the iconic attraction.
Keenan said the successful building of the docks will allow visitors to continue a tradition that has become so closely associated with the Falls.
“People will still have the opportunity to board the Maid of the Mist from Niagara Falls, U.S.A.,” Keenan said.TOP 10 The Gazette is counting down its top stories of 2013 through Jan. 1. Here's the list so far: • 10: Teens involved in Isabella Tenant murder sent to prison • 9: 2013 brings change to Niagara University • 8: Lewiston Civic Center saga • 7: Fashion Outlets seeks $71M expansion • 6: Town of Niagara supervisor indicted • 5: Signs of progress for troubled Falls roads • 4: Elections bring change to political landscape • 3: Maid of the Mist focuses on U.S. site • 2: Coming Sunday Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257