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If you want to see what the Niagara River Greenway could become, take a look at what’s happened in the Hudson River Valley in the 20 years since greenway efforts began there.

Main Streets have been linked to the river. Businesses that outfit tourists have proliferated. Hotels have prospered, and this year, the Hudson Valley landed on National Geographic’s list of 20 best trips, along with Marseille, the Great Bear Rainforest and Malawi.

“Promoting the Hudson River as a recreational resource has tremendous impact on the region’s tourism economy,” said Mark Castiglione, who heads the Hudson River Valley Greenway. “It’s not just about outfitters, but it’s about the people who are coming here for that experience, and that helps hotels, it helps restaurants, and it helps all those kinds of businesses that support tourism in our region.”

So imagine what could happen here, where internationally known waterfalls already draw millions to the Niagara River and where $9 million a year has been dedicated to greenway projects for the next 44 years.

The Hudson River Valley has been able to transform itself, not because it had millions of dollars for the greenway, as we have here, but by creating incentives for dozens of communities to work together toward similar goals.

“Many of those communities that border the Hudson River have now – not taken and turned their backs on the river – but they’re using the river as the front door to economic development,” said Carmella Mantello, former Hudson River Greenway executive director.

Here, in Erie and Niagara counties, a $450 million dedicated funding stream from a settlement with the Niagara Power Project gives us a leg up on what the Hudson River Valley had when it first set out on the greenway path.

But we’re on the verge of wasting that tremendous opportunity.

The money could have the power to transform the communities along the Niagara River. Or we can squander it on narrow thinking and parochial projects.

More than $46 million has been allocated in the six years since the money started flowing to create the Niagara River Greenway, but a recent review by the Partnership for the Public Good found that little more than half of the projects live up to the original vision of creating a system of linked “parks, trails and conservation areas” along the Niagara River.

A few projects have been deemed “inconsistent” with that vision but still got funded.

It’s the same old mentality: Don’t tell us what to do with our money.

The “fractured system” for approving projects and spending money, the report found, has impeded efforts to develop the Niagara River Greenway “as a unified system rather than a miscellaneous collection of projects.”

Mantello, who led the Hudson River Valley Greenway, attributes its success to the willingness of dozens of communities in 14 counties to work together.

“If those regional partnerships aren’t happening, not just at the local level, but at the state and local level, then the whole concept of the greenway goes out the door,” Mantello said.

Rarely have we had the right mix of money and opportunity to bring major change to the region. If only a few communities weren’t so intent on hacking away at their own isolated trail.

email: djgee@buffnews.com