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More than 40 acres of once-polluted land along the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda may get new life as a town center-type of project focused on green space, public waterfront access and environmental sustainability, under a plan being developed by the town’s economic development agency.

The proposal by the Town of Tonawanda Development Corp. is aimed at what’s known as the Niagara River World or Wickwire property, a parcel of mostly abandoned industrial land sandwiched between River Road and the river itself, just south of the South Grand Island bridges on the Niagara Thruway. A related 57-acre property directly to the north, known as Cherry Farm, is targeted for conversion to a public park.

Aside from a 230,000-square-foot warehouse at the front of the brownfields property, which is almost fully occupied, the privately owned land has not been actively used since the 1980s. Officials say it has been thoroughly cleaned of the pollutants that were dumped years ago.

The former steel plant site has almost a mile of shoreline that has been closed off to the public. That’s something the town and the owners – the Smith family, owners of Smith Boys Marina, a few miles downstream from the site – want to change by providing walking and bike paths, and even boat access.

“The public probably isn’t even aware the site is there,” said Robert L. Dimmig, Development Corp. executive director. “This property has been on comprehensive and waterfront plans for years ... We’re very fortunate that we have an owner that sees the potential.”

Under the preliminary plan, the development agency would acquire the 42-acre property – not including the warehouse – and then clear it of debris and any structures that are not usable or historic. It would then stabilize what remains, transform the parcel into parkland and open public access from River Road to the water.

The nonprofit agency would eventually seek to convert part of the site into a mixture of offices, research and development, and possibly display areas that would focus on solar or alternative energy and environmental sustainability. That could include testing and showcasing the environmentally friendly products and work of some of Tonawanda’s major businesses, such as Praxair, FMC Corp. or DuPont Co., many of which have expressed interest in sponsoring the work, Dimmig said.

Dimmig said the project could take two to four years to complete, but officials have not done detailed work or evaluated the final cost. He said it’s unlikely a private developer would undertake such a venture because of the cost and complexity.

“It’s a project which would not proceed under a typical private development scenario,” he said. “The Development Corp. is uniquely positioned as kind of that quasi-public entity to acquire the property, clear it, reposition it and then make something happen there. It’s really the culmination of a process that’s uncovered an opportunity and saying we’re ready to take this to the next level.”

Located at 4000 River Road, near Tonawanda Coke, the former Wickwire Steel site was originally on Rattlesnake Island before fill was used to join the island to the mainland, according to historian Ed Adamczyk.

It was acquired by Colorado Fuel & Iron in 1945 and survived until 1963, when competition drove it out of business. The plant was resurrected by Roblin Steel three years later but closed again in 1974. It was then acquired by called EnviroTech, which was later caught dumping pollutants, particularly on the northern portion. The property has been cleaned up, under the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Superfund program.

The Smith family bought the southern part of the land in the late 1980s because of the large warehouse, which they have leased to a host of companies. But the rest of the site is unused.

“I have a pretty good idea of what the reuse of the site could be,” Dimmig said. “Pretty shortly, we’ll start to put proposals in front of groups for funding, to start down that road.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com