Niagara Gazette

April 9, 2013

State officials confident Maid of the Mist project will survive court scrutiny

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — State officials renewed their committed Tuesday to an agreement with the Maid of the Mist Corp. while publicly endorsing the company's plan to develop a new boat storage facility on the former site of the Schoellkopf power plant.

During a press conference at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, state officials responded to legal action taken by the recently formed environmental group, the Niagara Preservation Coalition. 

In a lawsuit currently pending in New York State Supreme Court, the coalition claims that the state's plans to turn the former power plant site into a new boat storage facility will jeopardize the historic integrity of the property. Coalition members have also expressed concern that the land may contain toxic contaminants. 

On Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III issued a restraining order barring contractors from performing work in the Niagara Gorge at the Schoelkopf site while the court evaluates claims made as part of the coalition's lawsuit. 

During Tuesday's press conference, Pete Gallivan, the director of communications for Empire State Development's Western New York region, said the state is confident the order will ultimately be lifted and that the lawsuit will be dismissed once all of the evidence has been reviewed.

"We're complying with both state and federal law and right now we're confident that the courts will see it that way," Gallivan said.

The Maid of the Mist has pledged to spend more than $30 million to turn the site into a docking and storage facility for its fleet, while also installing hiking trails and other tourist attractions at the former power plant. In December, Maid of the Mist owner James Glynn and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a memorandum of understanding that altered the terms of an original 2002 agreement to include the use of the power plant site.

The new terms also included a boost in the payment that the company gives to the state. The Maid will pay New York state $105 million over the remaining 30 years of the contract - over three times the amount outlined in the 2002 agreement.

A contractor working on behalf of the Maid under a partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation started clearing brush at the top of the gorge last week and was preparing to begin clearing stone off the gorge wall to ensure the safety of workers and, in the future, tourists, Gallivan said.

Gallivan said the state's vision for the land does protect the history of the Schoelkopf site, pointing to the state's efforts to have the property listed on the national registry of historic places.

"Governor Cuomo and New York state agree that this is a significant historical site," Galllivan said. "That's why the state supported its addition to the national registry."

Louis Ricciuti, the director of the Niagara Preservation Coalition, said the New York Power Authority, which owns the land, declared the that there were no environmental concerns on the site to please Cuomo and Glynn, whom he described as "politically connected."

The power plant and other industries located along the gorge used many toxic chemicals and metals and operated long before governmental regulations and protections for the environment were put in place, Ricciuti said.

"There are a substantial amount of environmental issues that have not been addressed," Ricciuti said.

And, Ricciuti said, his coalition does not believe the state is following through on its claims that it wishes to celebrate the history of the site by building storage facilities for the Maid. In its legal filings, the coalition has charged that various state entities, including the New York Power Authority, have not done the necessary due diligence in advance of the construction project. 

"I don't think they're going to preserve the history of the site by pouring 25 feet of concrete and building thousands of feet of storage space on top of the power plant," Ricciuti said.

State officials have denied those claims, insisting all of the necessary environmental reviews have been completed and all appropriate clearances have been obtained to allow the project to move forward. 

The state is also facing a lawsuit from Hornblower Cruises & Entertainment, a California cruise boat company that won a competitive bid process in Ontario that will allow it to take over the docks and the storage facilities on the Canadian side from the Maid starting in 2014. Hornblower contends that the 40-year contract between the Maid and the state violates competitive bidding law.

State parks officials have said a competitive bidding process was not required when the contract with the Maid was signed because the company was determined to be "soul-source provider." 

Hornblower has contended, both in the press and in its lawsuit, that the process should be re-opened to could give the state a better deal than the Maid of the Mist.

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257