NIAGARA FALLS – The Maid of the Mist will keep its American boat tours afloat after all.
But there may be more good news for Niagara Falls about things to come: zip lines, horseback riding, rock climbing and yet another plan to revitalize downtown.
Those were the highlights of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s whirlwind visit Tuesday to the Cataract City in which he envisioned a plan that could change the idea of Niagara Falls tourism for years to come, offering an alternative for the version offered on the Canadian side of the border.
“Niagara Falls is a jewel – a jewel that we haven’t invested in, that we haven’t given the time and attention that it deserves,” Cuomo said in a news conference near the falls. “But it has phenomenal potential not just for the region, but for the entire state.”
Leaders believe the first step toward that goal was securing the future of the area’s world-renowned attraction, the Maid of the Mist.
The agreement between Cuomo’s administration and the Maid of the Mist calls for the company to pay for $32 million in upgrades near the site of the former Schoellkopf power plant to turn the area into a winter storage dock for its two-boat American fleet.
The company also will triple its annual rent payments to the state parks office, which are now expected to total $105 million over the 30 years remaining on the contract.
The Glynn family of Lewiston, which has owned the tours since 1971, was more than happy to pay.
“Gov. Cuomo has saved the Maid of the Mist,” President Christopher M. Glynn said. “She was in trouble, but he saved her. We are profoundly thankful that he was there when it counted.”
The company will lose its Canadian boat tour and storage facility in 2014, when Hornblower Cruises of California takes over operations on the Canadian shore. Construction on the American docks would presumably need to be completed by then.
Officials said construction at the Schoellkopf site would also include enhanced access for hiking trails, a new elevator, a public observation deck and the potential for rock-climbing and rappelling on the face of the gorge.
They added that the new deal would increase profits for Niagara Falls State Park, although it remains unclear exactly how much of the money will be used at the park and for what purposes.
“It’s a win-win-win all around,” Cuomo said. “For the Maid of the Mist, for the city and for the tourism industry.”
The only loser appeared to be Hornblower Cruises, which was hoping for an opportunity to bid on the new boat storage facility so that it could run tours on both sides of the falls.
Hornblower officials reasoned that if the Maid had a chance to win approval for new construction on public property, it should also have a fair and equal chance to bid, as it did last year in Canada.
They pointed to the help of a high-powered lobbying firm the Maid hired to plead its case in Albany. Cuomo brushed aside those concerns Tuesday, saying the Maid’s future was a “special circumstance.”
“We value the Maid of the Mist, we wanted to keep the Maid of the Mist here, we had a parcel we believed we could be better utilizing for the state and for tourism, and we put the two together,” he said.
Earlier in the day, local officials told Cuomo they believe making better use of the region’s tourism assets should be a key strategy for the $1 billion in state aid pledged to help revitalize the Buffalo Niagara region. That plan now includes an initiative called the “Downtown Niagara Falls Challenge,” which aims to jump-start development in blighted areas downtown.
The state will invest in a plan to select a team of designers, developers and tourism operators to develop “signature” parcels near the entrance to the city from Canada and in surrounding properties.
The state will fund the cost of the competition, parcel acquisition and a development subsidy.
Niagara Falls State Park also would see a dramatic program change with a plan to mesh current offerings with the growing eco-tourism sector. Site improvements would include the addition of bicycling, fishing, horseback riding, zip-lining, rock climbing, cross-country skiing and heritage-based tours.
A more coordinated marketing strategy between Buffalo and Niagara Falls is also a high priority in the plan, though it was unclear when those programs would begin.