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In the almost 200 years since the opening of the Erie Canal, Buffalo has undergone many paroxysms of transition, development and growth. The opening of the canal on that auspicious October day in 1825 was a decisive moment. It transformed a small settlement along Buffalo Creek into a thunder town that in its golden age rivaled the wealthiest and most important cities not only on the Great Lakes, but on the entire earth. The rhythms of humanity have always been on display here. Cycles of boom and bust, war and peace, power and poverty along one of the great international borders make up our cultural DNA.

It has always been the “big idea,” the precocious gift of the human mind that has characterized our ability to survive and thrive, often in the face of unimaginable adversity. Today is no different. We are a few years into a substantial process that will characterize our region’s resilience, security and thrivability for generations to come. This brings us inevitably and unavoidably to our waterfront, where our past and future intersect.

Our region is situated on one of the earth’s greatest freshwater resources. Nearly 20 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water is located in the Great Lakes. It is all at risk. Can we target economic development that protects our water resources? Can cleanup and conservation be the centerpiece of economic development or will they be sacrificed on the altar of externalities? Can we find a sustainable pathway to a thriving future? Can we lead?

Big thinkers foster big ideas. We have more than a few helping us to chart our course. Recently Cameron Davis, the Obama administration’s EPA point person on Great Lakes issues, was in Buffalo to promote the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The GLRI has delivered money locally to help clean up both the Buffalo River and to remove damaging invasive species from the Times Beach Nature Preserve on the downtown side of the Outer Harbor.

“Investing in ecological restoration is an investment in the economy and the future,” Davis said.

Rep. Brian Higgins agrees. His leadership and vision have fostered and shaped tools including the Greenway Commission and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. They have helped to bring diverse elements of the community together to work out our future. From this writer’s perspective the future is resurgent.

Public or private?

This summer, the ongoing waterfront discussions continue to focus on cleanups and development strategies. There is much at stake. The sharp focus is on the outer harbor. Proposals, plans and projects are jelling, and decisions are being made.

Our historic legacy indicates that previous generations made decisions with consequences that current generations are paying for. Look no further than the Buffalo Lackawanna waterfronts to be aware that much of the lands and waters have been heavily contaminated by the legacy of private industry. The bad news is that brownfield remediation to preserve the health and quality of life for future generations will cost taxpayers billions.

Other threats to the Great Lakes, documented in a recent Buffalo News series, are nearly overwhelming. Cumulative threats include urban and agricultural runoff, raw sewerage, invasive species, habitat loss and climate change. If we are to have a future, we must act now to clean our region and stop the insanity of pollution.

The big development questions contrast private use versus public access. Should we allow private development that limits public access and public scrutiny, or promote open space and public access? Can we feed a mixture of the seemingly polar opposites? One way or another, taxpayers will bear the costs.

Many argue that privatization is an unrivaled economic engine, represents the highest purpose and value for the waterfront and that a rising tide lifts all boats. Others argue that privatization is a transfer of public investment away from the public trust, access and use. In public hearing after public hearing, citizens are arguing for equal public access, pointing out that not all people have access to boats.

The good news is that we are engaged. Governments are working on sustainable solutions. They are making social, economic and environmental investments that are change-makers. These agencies have partnered with the private and pubic sectors, individuals and public benefit organizations in discussions and projects that are moving us forward.

Better access needed

It is no secret that public investment attracts economic development. On the outer harbor, public investments decontaminate brownfields and prepare infrastructure for development. Public money creates tremendous value.

Higgins advocates for beaches, parks, public amenities and the restoration of ecological productivity. He says that we should focus urban development in areas such as the inner harbor.

“We don’t need to re-create a city on the outer harbor,” Higgins said.

Better access infrastructure is critical. He is working with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. to transform Ohio Street into a tree-lined, bike-friendly boulevard from downtown to the outer harbor.

“This will be our land bridge,” he said. Construction will begin later this year.

Many businesses and individuals who call the Buffalo waterfront home support the progress.

Captain Bill Zimmermann of Seven Seas Sailing School, established in 1970, says that the future of his business and the newly developing waterfront is better than ever. He credits the work of Higgins and Tom Dee of the Harbor Development Corp.

“They have brought the process to the people. Vision and money are creating a world-class waterfront.”

But struggles remain. Joan Bozer and Joanne Kahn are activists promoting public access through the development of a new Olmsted Park on portions of the outer harbor. Bozer says that parkland and greenspace improve quality of life and the value of adjacent properties.

“Quality of life attracts people and investments,” she said. The project was recently turned down for funding by the Niagara Greenway Commission, which was intended to create a linear system of parks and trails linking lakes Erie and Ontario. The commission was recently critiqued in a report by University at Buffalo professor Sam Magavern and the Partnership for the Public Good as quickly spending down its money on projects that have no relation to parks and trails. The Greenway Commission needs to improve.

Invest in blue economy

Clean water is an increasingly rare resource. A majority of humans will face severe shortages within a generation. Our strategically located region makes us a major player and our relationship with the Great Lakes will define our future.

Jill Jedlicka of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper advocates for investment in a “blue economy.” She points out that nearly 4 million jobs in New York State depend on the Great Lakes, sport fishing supports 12,000 jobs, has a $2.2 billion economic impact, and recreational boating has a $600 million economic impact. We can improve those numbers with coordinated efforts to promote clean water. Can we better link that to a recreational economy that will draw tourists and investments by people who want to visit, live and work here?

Riverkeeper strategies include public and private partnerships, healthy water, public access and open space, designing natural systems into community redevelopment, and using the Niagara Greenway as a catalyst for waterfront and economic revitalization.

Pursue marine sanctuary

Times Beach Nature Preserve is located in downtown Buffalo and next to the Coast Guard Station on Fuhrmann Boulevard. It is a demonstration project to remove invasive species and return ecological value with restored native habitat. Both the Buffalo River and Times Beach have received GLRI money. Lt. Col. Owen J. Beaudoin, commander of the Buffalo District Corps of Engineers that is in charge of the project, says that Times Beach is a jewel that supports many species of migrating birds that depend on the Niagara River Corridor Globally Significant Important Bird Area. It is one of many restoration projects that are helping to revitalize regional economy by focusing on conservation.

Big ideas continue to emerge. The United States operates 14 National Marine Sanctuaries, 13 of which are ocean-based and protect biodiversity. There is only one in the Great Lakes – Thunder Bay in Lake Huron. Shipwrecks, history and heritage are highlighted. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which oversees the sanctuaries, the economic impact of the Thunder Bay Sanctuary has been substantial. Accommodations, retail operations, marinas, boat, kayak, and canoe liveries, and tour operators garnered more than $100 million in sales associated with the sanctuary, including $39.1 million in personal income for residents. Thousands of jobs have been created.

Buffalo’s waterfront would be perfect for a marine sanctuary because we have world-class biodiversity. Educational and research institutions can turn our area into the Woods Hole of the Great Lakes.

Did I mention that much of the history and heritage of North America can be interpreted along our shorelines and beneath our waters? Spectacular natural attractions such as Niagara Falls already draw tourists to our region. The Erie Niagara Marine Sanctuary can be an economic development tool that is inexpensive, low-hanging fruit for a region engaged with defining its future.

This summer, our region will continue to work toward a resilient blue economy that will help to guarantee a thriving and sustainable tomorrow. Thanks to a lot of dedicated individuals and organizations, we have a real chance for a future that works for all of us.

Jay Burney, a naturalist, writer and conservation activist, founded the Learning Sustainability Campaign and is chairman of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.