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The Maid of the Mist needs to start work within weeks on a new boat storage facility in order to protect its fleet from next winter’s icy waters.

But with a lawsuit filed by its Canadian competitor, that $30 million gamble isn’t the only obstacle the company faces as it fights to keep its popular boat tours afloat.

A newly formed advocacy group with ties to the Maid’s Canadian rival is raising environmental and historic preservation complaints and lobbying for an investigation.

Hornblower Cruises, the Maid’s competitor for boat tours at the falls, uses the same lobbying firm as the new advocacy group and has paid that firm more than $80,000 since last year to lobby state legislators and the Cuomo administration about the boat tours, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News.

The new group, called the Niagara Preservation Coalition, this week called for an investigation into the Maid contract because of environmental and historical concerns about the property, which sits near a row of former industrial sites.

Coalition President Lou Ricciuti, a Niagara Falls resident known for his interest in nuclear waste, said the Maid’s proposed “Schoellkopf plan” would “damage the local environment” and “destroy one of the most significant historical artifacts left in New York State.”

But supporters of the Maid say the group was created by those close to Hornblower in an attempt to delay the process of constructing the dock.

“I don’t recall ever having heard of this organization in the past, and I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been created solely for the purpose of attacking Maid of the Mist’s project on behalf of the Canadian competition,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

The new preservation group’s message was sent to reporters Wednesday by Nicholas & Lence Communications, a New York City public relations and lobbying firm with political ties that lists Hornblower Cruises as a client on its website.

Maid officials believe the group is bogus and “now understand that they have an adversary who is willing to use any tactic to win,” said Maid spokesman Kevin A. Keenan.

But Hornblower officials and those at the preservation group are calling the tie a coincidence.

“I’m not carrying the coalition’s water,” said Hornblower chief executive Terry MacRae. “They’re on their own ...They’re not working on our behalf. They don’t care who wins.”

Linda R. Shaw, a Rochester environmental attorney who is working with the preservation group, acknowledged that her firm offered to assist the preservation group but that it had nothing to do with Hornblower.

“We have no interest in Hornblower,” she said.

MacRae acknowledged, “There is an indirect connection, you could say.”

John P. Bartolomei, a Niagara Falls attorney who represents Hornblower, said he and the company were “not really” working with the environmental group.

Shaw said the environmental group is made up of concerned citizens who want the state to slow down its review process for the Maid of the Mist project.

“It’s just being rushed,” she said. “We just think this process has gone way too fast. If any other party did a project like this, we would probably be in a two-year period.”

But the clock is ticking for the Maid as it attempts to build the new storage facility at the base of the Niagara Gorge.

Construction of the dock and storage garage is expected to take eight months to complete, meaning the $30 million work project would need to begin sometime this month.

The site, built near the ruins of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant, would allow the company to protect its boats from the ice after Hornblower Cruises takes control of the Canadian storage facility and tours on that shore next year.

State officials have asked federal regulators to fast-track its review process for the project “to ensure that MaidCo’s boats can be safely secured by November 2013 in advance of the winter elements.”

If that dock is not ready by next winter, few options exist.

Storing the boats farther down river is not feasible, State Power Authority lawyers say, because of the swirling whirlpools and strong currents running between the falls and Lewiston.

And according to recently filed regulatory documents, the Schoellkopf site is “the only location with sufficient property” to build the crucial storage area.

But Hornblower this week challenged the Maid’s plan to build on that site, saying the upgrades – by virtue of public finance law – should have been put out to public bidding.

Hornblower also said the state’s claim that the Maid’s previous contracts did not need to be bid because they held the Canadian dock land should now apply to Hornblower, since it owns the Canadian dock land.

The San Francisco company is also offering to pay New York State $100 million more for the boat contract than the Maid has agreed to do.

Ricciuti said the former presence of heavy industries along the rim of the Niagara Gorge above the Schoellkopf site calls for further environmental review.

State officials, in their environmental quality review, said “physical impacts to historic facilities will be minor and will allow for additional interpretive opportunities at the site” and that environmental impact of construction would be “minor.”

Dyster said that there are “legitimate” questions to be asked about past industrial uses at the site but that officials “should not be driven by these other considerations.”

email: cspecht@buffnews.com