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LOCKPORT – Lockport Cave, the city’s second-biggest tourist attraction, will have a new visitor center this season, co-owner Thomas Callahan said Tuesday.

The city Zoning Board of Appeals granted eight variances Tuesday to allow Callahan’s company to erect a 24-by-32-foot building on a long, narrow piece of property bordering Gooding Street.

Callahan said the one-story center will cost between $85,000 and $125,000 to build. It will include an overlook for the Erie Canal locks, a covered outdoor pavilion and a rear deck.

He said the Cave’s 2012 attendance was up, but declined to release exact figures.

“It’s time we did this and had a facility of our own and entered the mainstream of tourism,” Callahan said. “And the timing is right with the Flight of Five.”

He was referring to the original 19th century canal locks. The city plans to award a contract in June for renovation of two of the five locks to working condition.

Lockport Cave offers underground boat rides in an artificial cave originally dug in the 19th century to divert canal water to industries which are now long defunct. It has been headquartered in Old City Hall on the Pine Street Bridge for the past 12 years.

Callahan said he’s letting his lease on that building lapse. He bought the Gooding Street site – 352 feet long and 75 feet wide at its widest point – from the Dale Association last summer.

“This property has much better visibility [than Old City Hall],” Callahan said.

The company sought to buy a building on Canal Street from the city in 2011, but the deal fell through, leading Callahan to plan his own.

“It would be an awesome addition to the tourism industry down there,” said Michael Ulrich, president of Ulrich Sign Co. His planned 17-foot-high sign for the new Cave headquarters received one of the eight variances.

“People right now don’t even know where the caves are,” Zoning Board Chairman W. Kevin Foltz said.

The cave runs 40 feet beneath the site of the new visitor center, Callahan said. The thick rock on the site makes it hard for any foundation to be dug, and Callahan said he has an easement that would have prevented anyone from building there, anyway.

The boundary of the state’s canal right of way, the so-called “blue line,” runs through the Gooding Street lot, but Callahan presented a letter from the Thruway Authority approving the project.

Because of the oddly-shaped lot, the building will come within five feet of the front property line, and the deck will be within one foot of the rear boundary. The pavilion will be seven feet from the rear property and 11 feet from the front.

Callahan said he still needs site plan approvals from the city and county planning boards.

He said he will make an announcement soon about his plans for a former vehicle repair shop building, which he owns, next to his planned visitor center.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com