Delaware North is currently lobbying Albany in an attempt to renew the concessions license for Niagara Falls State Park. The license expires this year. As a filmmaker, I first encountered this suspicious contract when I learned that all movies being filmed at the state park must pay the Top of the Falls restaurant for catering. This is an unfair monopoly which excludes local restaurants from catering any production that chooses the park as a location.
When Top of the Falls was built in 1990, New York State Sen. Daniel Moynihan publicly argued that the existence of the restaurant had permanently disfigured the Olmsted Reservation and endangered the park’s historic status. According to late Niagara Falls Historian and Olmsted expert Paul Gromosiak, this is true.
Gromosiak is perhaps the only Niagarian who has a boulder engraved and dedicated to him at the Niagara Falls State Park. Two days after Paul passed away, parks spokesperson Angela Berti publicly heralded his expertise, saying “There was nobody who cared more about the city and the park, and knew more about it.” [Buffalo News, 8/6/2018]
Since the Niagara Reservation may have been rendered unrecognizable in 1990, it stands to reason that the subsequent commercialization and installment of artificial pleasantries over the last 31 years have only further disfigured Olmsted’s original design. Clearly, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has favored profit over natural history. In his final testimony, available on YouTube, Gromosiak scoffs “Some historic preservation. They’re hypocrites.”
New York state has always claimed that the Niagara Reservation and the Niagara Falls State Park are the same entity. This cannot be true. In fact, the two are polar opposites. Explains Gromosiak, “A park is defined as land set aside for recreation. A reservation is land set aside for a specific purpose, in this case for preservation of the natural condition.”
State Assemblyman Thomas V. Welch, who co-created the Niagara Reservation alongside Frederick Law Olmsted, gave a speech to the state assembly on March 2nd, 1883. In his own words, Welch states “Nothing like a park, in the ordinary acceptance of the word, is contemplated or desired at Niagara. Nature there presents a spectacle of more beauty and grandeur than all the artificial parks of the world combined, and any attempt to improve it by ornament should be regarded as a sacrilege.”
The Niagara Reservation Act, which passed in 1883 and can be found in the Laws of the State of New York (106th Session), clearly states that it is “AN ACT to authorize the selection, location and appropriation of certain lands in the village of Niagara Falls for a state reservation and to preserve the scenery of the falls of Niagara.” When asked if the Niagara Falls State Park illegally occupies the Niagara Reservation, Gromosiak says “Yes... They promised in that act that forever they would keep that land natural; and not allow any artificial introductions to the land.” He goes on to say that calling it a park “allows for lodges and restaurants… makes it legal.”
A look into the 2013 park construction plans by Empire State Development reveals that New York State still utilizes Olmsted’s guidelines on paper, but not in reality. The Niagara Reservation Act, which is still legally valid, has been violated by New York State. Parking lots, toll booths, and restaurants would have Olmsted rolling in his grave. Without Olmsted’s name attached, the park would not be on the National Historic Registry, and would thus lose any associated benefits. This unfair (and illegal) concessions license forces our local eateries to compete with New York State, their partners and their never-ending resources.
This is a binary issue: Either the Olmsted designed Niagara Reservation still exists, and the state must follow specific natural guidelines laid forth by the famous architect; or the Niagara Falls State Park has completely disfigured the reservation beyond any recognition.
As the latter is true, we as a community should urge our elected officials to begin petitioning the federal government to seize the park from the state and preserve it as a national park. As Theodore Roosevelt said to Congress in 1905, “Nothing should be allowed to interfere with the preservation of Niagara Falls in all their beauty and majesty. If the State cannot see this then it is earnestly to be wished that she should be willing to turn it over to the national government, which should in such case, assume the burden and responsibility of preserving unharmed Niagara Falls just as it should gladly assume a similar burden and responsibility for the Yosemite National Park.”
The federal government is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Delaware North after the concessions company was denied a renewal for a similar license in Yosemite (another Olmsted park). Delaware North owner, Buffalo billionaire Jeremy Jacobs, lives on an Olmsted estate and has been presented with awards from the National Association for Olmsted Parks; who have remained silent about the concessions license.
Ken Cosentino is a filmmaker, environmental activist and passionate supporter of Niagara Falls.