By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — State officials, contractors and politicians celebrated a $25 million commitment to improve Niagara Falls State Park Friday morning, touring job sites and cutting ribbons into the afternoon.
The officials touted projects at Luna Island, the Cave of the Winds and Three Sisters Islands where work is complete and broke ground at Prospect Point where a facelift is scheduled to be finished by the spring of 2015. Civic leaders and reporters joined the state officials as they toured the park.
Rose Harvey, the commissioner of state parks, said Niagara Falls State Park has been a victim of its own popularity. With an average of 8 million visitors a year the park has become worn out and is in need of attention.
"Remember, it is the oldest state park in the nation and as such has been entertaining visitors for a very long time," Harvey said. "So It is tired. It's been loved."
The park — deemed the Niagara Reservation and protected by state legislation signed into law in 1885 — was charecterized as "shabby" in a New York Times travel section article from 2011 that was noted by Harvey and several legislators on hand.
Harvey said the improvements — funded largely with Niagara River Greenway money, part of the 2007 Niagara Power Project relicensing agreement — will go a long way to turn the Fredrick Law Olmsted designed park from "shabby" to beautiful.
"Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo committed to Western New York and said 'make something happen,'" Harvey said. "We did."
Three park areas have been completed at a a total cost of $4.6 million to date:
• $1.8 million for restoration work at Three Sisters Island
• $1.1 million for improvements on Luna Island
• $1.7 million for the renovation of the tunnel that leads visitors to the gorge and new elevators the Cave of the Winds
The $4.3 million renovation of Prospect Point is the next step in what officials described as the "many" projects planned throughout the park.
Thomas Herrera-Mishler, the president and CEO of the Olmstead Parks Conservancy, said the state has removed invasive species like Japanese Honeysuckle and Mustard Grass from the improved areas and replaced them with native species.
"We did a really thorough study of the invasive species," Herrera-Mishler said. "Most of the native (species) were gone and were replaced by non-diverse foreign plants."
While the newly planted native species look small now, in a few years they will reach maturity and fill in the park space.
"More biodiversity is a good thing," Herrera-Mishler said. "More native species is a good thing and it's more true to the original vision for the park."
Paul Gromosiak, a local historian with a thorough knowledge of the state park, had reservations about the state's improvement projects. In particular, he worried that the removal of plants from Three Sisters Islands would detract from the islands' natural feel.
But, while walking the islands Friday morning, Gromosiak was overjoyed by the access and improved views created by the state's work.
"I love it," he said, adding, "They have kept . . . much of the islands wild. They haven't done a thing. The only places they have done anything are where people walk."
At 70, Gromosiak said he often found it hard to get around on the islands before the work was completed.
"All the walkways are so much easier for people," he said. "It's so much more inviting and the views they chose to focus on are the best."
Brecht and Sara Saelans had traveled from Lily Dale, N.Y., with their 11-month-old son Adrian to visit the park on Friday. Along with them was their friend, Gretchen Richoux, who had come up from New York City.
Sara said she enjoyed the improvements, noting the enhanced views on Three Sisters Islands.
She said the islands seem less dangerous than before, something she values more now that she is a parent.
"To me it's safer and beautiful," Sara said. "I think it's a nice improvement."
Her husband, Brecht, said he personally liked the more wild feel of the islands before, but agreed with his wife that the improvements made the islands in the middle of the rapids less never wracking for parents exploring with their children.
"I agree it's beautiful, but as a guy I like it more when it was rough and more natural," Brecht said. "I have to agree with my wife overall. For the family it's better the way it is."
Richoux, who had never visited the Falls, described the islands as "amazing."
"It's a very visceral experience," she said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257