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By James Carr

Why is the Niagara River Greenway funding generating so much controversy? After all, we already have waterfront parks. Why do we need more? Shouldn’t this land be put to more productive uses such as industry or high-end housing? Why take it off the tax rolls at a time when many communities are struggling to maintain basic services? And lastly, why should we allow the Greenway Commission to tell us what to do? Should not our local leaders have the final say on what happens on our waterfront?

The answers to these questions are critical to the future of Western New York. Our riverfront and lakefront areas have been central to the growth and development of the region. The Erie Canal and Buffalo Harbor opened the interior of the continent, assuring the economic vitality of Western New York.

Today our region is struggling. We are part of what the media somewhat disparagingly call the Rust Belt. Industries departed, leaving behind abandoned factories, polluted brownfields and a community longing for “the good old days.” But another legacy of our past is less frequently mentioned. We are saddled with a horse-and-buggy government, which worships “home rule” to the exclusion of any regional concept such as the Niagara River Greenway.

The Greenway is an attempt to leverage what is undeniably our most important natural asset into an internationally significant system of parks, trails and historic and natural features that will create a new and more progressive image for our region. Is this important? Go online and you will see other regions undertaking similar projects to redefine their communities and improve the quality of life for their citizens. New York City, for example, is continuing with the High Line Park, is building Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Harlem River Greenway and soon, the Queensway. Baltimore created a new image with its Inner Harbor.

Lacking a positive local image, we are forced to spend up to $1 million per job to lure companies here. Ask human resource managers what is their biggest challenge; they will all say “our poor regional image.”

The Greenway will redefine our regional image; it will help us build a future based on looking forward rather than back to a past that will never return. It will strengthen our local economy, which in turn provides the tax revenue to provide public services.

Our economic future is too important to allow a few shortsighted persons to squander it by diverting Greenway funding. The Greenway legislation needs to be revised to return to its original intent. It is not a grab bag to fund local pet projects, no matter how worthy. It is the key to our 21st century future.

James Carr was formerly executive director of the Urban Waterfront Advisory Committee and is a member of Citizens for a 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor.