Niagara Gazette

June 13, 2013

Maid of the Mist awaits word on injunction as officials allow look at construction site

Maid officials awaits word on injunction as company allows look at construction site

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — State officials have started to release information about the construction of boat docking facilities on the former Schoellkopf Power Station site.

Officials from the New York Power Authority, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Empire State Development and the construction company hired to perform the work took reporters on a tour of the site — both from the river and from the top of the gorge — Monday morning.

Work crews continued to move soil around the site as officials explained plans for the site. Maid of the Mist Corp. — the boat cruise company that has operated tours at the base of the Falls since 1971 — plans to store its fleet on the historic property this winter.

The tour comes after representatives from local preservation groups like the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission and Preservation Buffalo Niagara reported a lack of transparency from state agencies involved in the conversion of the site where two building from the Schoellkopf Power Station tumbled into the gorge in June of 1956.

Though the power authority, which owns the site, and state parks did allow reporters to tour the site the agencies still have not released documents requested by the Gazette, including site plans that were shown to reporters during the visit.

Robert F. Panepinto, a cultural resources specialist with the power authority, traveled to Niagara Falls from the authority’s White Plains offices to explain what the authority is doing to preserve the history of the site, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February after the state pushed to have it placed on the list of protected places.

Panepinto said the state is following guidelines from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal advisory committee that works to preserve historic sites.

“We’re doing exactly what we were supposed to do as far as the national registry nomination was concerned,” Panepinto said.

Panepinto has been on the site documenting artifacts with a global positioning system-capable camera and taking an inventory of historic artifacts. He has also instructed workers from LP Ciminelli — the lead contractor on the job — and its subcontractors to collect anything that looks like a tool or part of the building, he said.

Panepinto said about a dozen artifacts have been collected so far and showed reporters a wrench and the head to a pick axe as examples. The tools work well to “tell the story” of the Schoellkopf site, something he maintained is an aim of all parties working on the conversion.

“People connect with tools,” Panepinto said.

In addition to collecting artifacts Panepinto will be working with state parks, the State Historic Preservation Office and Maid of the Mist to formulate a plan for historic interpretive elements for the site, though nothing specific has been outlined as of yet, he said.

“We haven’t sat down to plan things out yet,” Panepinto said.

In matters of preservation there are differing views on what is worthy of being saved and whether a site should ever be altered at all. Panepinto’s job on the Schoellkopf site is to find a balance between preserving history and developing the land for the Maid of the Mist boat docks, he said.

“It’s one of the high-level theoretical discussions in preservation,” Panepinto said. “How do you balance those two viewpoints?”

Another preservation group, the Niagara Preservation Coalition, raised concerns last week and posted pictures of steel support beams that were part of the buildings being placed into a bin meant for the scrap yard. The coalition filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in New York State Supreme Court. A panel of judges will rule on on the injunction in Rochester on Monday. If the motion is upheld it could delay work on the site for months.

Louis Ricciuti, the president of the coalition, said the various agencies are only beginning to open up because his organization caught them removing the steel girders.

The state agencies are not following plans to do an “encapsulated preservation” in which the site would be covered in concrete as it was when it fell into the river with the ability to dig the site up “in situation” later, Ricciuti said.

Instead the state agencies are doing whatever is necessary without a plan to make sure that the Maid of the Mist has its docking facility by the fall, Ricciuti said.

“You can’t respond to these things as they arise,” Ricciuti said. “These things should have been outlined before the first shovel hit the dirt.”

Maid of the Mist works toward creating a new home for its fleet while fighting battles in court with work continuing throughout the rain on Monday.

The company, in addition to the preliminary injunction from the preservation coalition, is awaiting a decision in a lawsuit from Hornblower Entertainment and Cruises, a California boat tour company that aims to reopen the Maid’s 40-year, no-bid contract with state parks to run the concession signed in 2002.

Hornblower won the rights to operate the boat tour concession in Ontario last year and will take control of the concession and the boat docking facilities — located on the Canadian side of the gorge — that the Maid has used for decades in the beginning of 2014.

State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto, to whom Robert Panepinto said he has no familial ties, heard arguments in the suit in April and is writing a decision.

Catherine Nugent Panepinto, also in April, lifted a temporary restraining order that had halted work on the suit that was signed by Justice Ralph Boneillo III as part of the preservation coalition’s original lawsuit against the Maid of the Mist, state parks, NYPA and several other state agencies involved in the conversion of the site.

Vinny Jowdy, a project manager with LP Ciminelli, said the $32 million project — being paid for entirely by Maid of the Mist — is the most contentious job site he has been involved with.

Since beginning work in March contractors have scaled rocks from the edge of the gorge, installed a temporary elevator, moved soil around to “balance” the site and created a drainage area, Jowdy said.

Work to still be done includes the clearing of hiking paths, the restoration of the existing elevator shaft and the installation of the permanent marine crane that will take the boats in and out of the water.

When complete the site will have a 2,500 square-foot building that will house lockers and bathrooms for employees and a garage for maintenance equipment along with outdoor docking facilities for the boats.

Jowdy said all of the “staging” work for the project is complete and the conversion work is about 20 percent complete.

The crane will be installed by November and the entire project will be done next year, he said — if there are no further delays because of litigation.

“For our plan, based on all the outside issues and all that, we’re holding strong,” Jowdy said.

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