By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The Maid of The Mist has plucked its tourist-toting vessels from the waters of the of the Niagara Gorge and placed them on their newly-built dry dock on the former Schoellkopf Power Station site, a punctuation mark for the iconic attraction to a task that has been marred by controversy.
Maid owners and employees stood alongside state and city officials, the construction workers that have been working around the clock to complete the new dry dock and members of the press watching as the 125,000 ton Maid of the Mist VII was hoisted out of the water, her sister ship the Maid of the Mist VI waiting patiently in the rushing waters of the lower Niagara, as the ship was gently placed onto wood blocks to rest for the winter.
Maid of the Mist owner James Glynn, smiling as the boat came to rest, said his company and its contractors on the job, LP Ciminelli, accomplished "what we set out to do" Thursday morning.
"It's very gratifying that we're here and everything's in place," Glynn said. "We'll be ready to start in the spring from the American side."
The Maid of the Mist, which has operated tour boats at the base of the Falls since 1846 and been owned by the Glynn family since 1971, lost its contract with the Niagara Parks Commission, the provincial agency that runs the parks system in Ontario, re-opened the Glynn's contract to bidding in 2009, the result of lawsuits and public scrutiny of the company's no-bid contract.
The Maid was outbid by Hornblower Cruises and Entertainment, a California-based cruise operator, and lost its storage facilities located on the Canadian side of the gorge along with the right to operate in Ontario. Hornblower gains rights to the site at the beginning of 2014.
With no storage facilities on the American side of the gorge, the company was in danger of losing its ability to operate the attraction.
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined the Glynn's in announcing an amendment to the Maid's existing 40-year contract — inked in 2002 — that would see the state take in an additional $105 million over the course of agreement and see the Maid spend an additional $32 million to convert the historic Schoellkopf Power Station site into a dry dock facility for the boats and "enhance" the historic aspects of the site to create another attraction for visitors.
The company and several state agencies have faced a series of lawsuits from Hornblower, seeking to reopen the Maid's no-bid contract on the American side, and from the Niagara Preservation Coalition, a preservation group seeking to stop the Maid and the state from altering the historic site, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February after a push from state officials for the designation.
In addition, the Niagara Preservation Coalition accused the Maid, the Cuomo administration and a variety of state and federal agencies of rushing through environmental review processes to meet the dealine and appease the politically connected Glynn's in court documents.
The Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission, the city's designated preservation board, also raised concerns this summer when they felt they were being shut out from the site and information regarding the state's plans for the historic aspects of the former power plant, which broke away from the gorge and tumbled into the Niagara in June of 1956.
They were taken on a site visit and granted access to the documents they were seeking after several news stories were published about the state's reluctance to cooperate.
The commission is now working with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the New York Power Authority and Preservation Buffalo Niagara to formulate a plan for interpretive elements on the site.
Vinny Jowdy, the project manager on the site for LP Ciminelli, said his crews have been working intently, sometimes 24 hours a day, for the past 10 months to ensure that the facility would be prepared to store the Maid's boats and docks before winter.
It was "very rewarding" to see the first boat resting on blocks on the 25-foot thick concrete pad built by his crew on Thursday, Jowdy said.
"It's not only rewarding for myself and our company, but all the people who are involved," he added.
In addition to the dry dock, the contractors will construct a maintenance building and will restore a historic elevator shaft from the power plant.
Those renovations should be complete by next summer, according to Jowdy.
"Right now we're working 20 hours a day because there's other tasks that we're working on, even though this was a big milestone," he said.
The 78-foot-tall marine crane was delivered in mid-September, coming in parts from Germany and England, passing through Canada before coming over the Peace Bridge in Buffalo.
The hulking, 157 ton crane took about a month to lower into the gorge and assemble.
Mayor Paul Dyster, who has hiked and fished in the gorge since he was a child, said the day brought a sense of "elation and relief" to the Glynn family and the many people who view the Maid as an icon of Niagara Falls.
"What was unique about this project was that it had a real deadline," Dyster said.
Dyster, said that some of the groups that raised concerns earlier this year will now be able to focus on the best way to celebrate the history of the site.
"The focus, up until today, was creating a place where they can successfully take the boats out of the water," Dyster said. "The focus going forward from today is going to be on how we can get the maximum value from the site in the future."
Dyster said piecing together the natural, economic and environmental histories of the gorge, the power station and the Maid of the Mist will be challenging.
"I think at the end of the day what we're going to end up with here is something that serves a very practical purpose, but that also is going to become a focus now for our tourism industry," Dyster said.
Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257