Imagine zipping across the Niagara River in eight minutes from Youngstown to Niagara-on-the-Lake (or vice versa) on a ferry boat, with your bicycle by your side, eager to explore the treasures waiting on the other side.
Niagara County Legislator Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, vice chairman of the Legislature and enthusiastic proponent of this plan for the past eight years, believes it's entirely doable.
"You can do anything that is possible to be done, if you make a commitment," Burmaster said last week.
Youngstown Mayor Raleigh B. Reynolds sees it as "a positive thing for both communities, and it's doable if we can get all of the details worked out and approvals from both [American and Canadian] sides."
Dave Eke, Lord Mayor of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., said that he fondly remembers taking such a ride 40 years ago.
"And, it's been asked at our Council table many times, 'How could we do this again?' " Eke said.
"I remember taking that ferry a couple of times a year after my wife and I moved here in 1975," Eke recalled. "It was about a 24-foot boat and cost about a dollar at the time, and it was a most pleasant ride. We'd land in Youngstown and see the border security guard and then walk up the hill and visit our favorite restaurants. Many people on this side used to enjoy that, but I believe the insurance became too much for a small, private operation, and it ceased operation around 1980."
Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001, and further obstacles arose, owing to tightened border security.
But Burmaster said he and Samuel M. Ferraro, commissioner of the county's Economic Development Agency, and John Kinney, owner of Whirpool Jetboats Inc., will soon meet to renew their pursuit of the necessary approvals.
"When Sam and I formed this group to do this years ago, we had the Border Patrol on both the American and Canadian sides, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs - everyone - on our side for this," he recalled.
"And then we wondered, 'What does the public think of this idea?' So, without any real notice, we put together a trial run and 1,000 people showed up."
That one-day test run in August 2005 proved an overwhelming success.
"It was a picture-perfect day, and John Kinney used one of his jet boats, which holds 40 people," he recalled. "All of the [local] elected officials [from both countries] were part of it. We had our funding all lined up.
"The last thing that had to be done, from the Canadian side, was Customs, and they felt that if they were sending people to man the customs booth at the river for this, they wanted 'cost-recovery,' which is simply that they wanted to be paid," he said. "They wanted $200,000 to put customs officers in the facility at Niagara-on-the-Lake."
Burmaster said his argument is, "What if we took 1,000 people off the bridge [and offered alternative transportation]? Isn't that cost-recovery?"
Eke said that with tightened border security, "We have lost something, and we ask, 'How do we get it back?' We have family and friends - and business - on either side of the border. It is a dream to regain what we had in those days . and a bit of a goal we'd like to achieve."
"We have things happening in that [riverfront] area," Eke said. "We are revitalizing the little dock space we have and have just purchased a house there to increase our waterfront property. We are updating our plans for the area because people here have expressed a need for more waterfront access."
"We are also dealing with the renewal of our lease with the Whirlpool Jets, so we are in the midst of that process now," he added.
Eke said approval for a cross-river ferry would need to be secured from three levels of government on the Canadian side: local, provincial and federal.
"And funding is a concern because everyone is watching their dollars," he said.
"If we could work through the barriers before us, we could reinstate what made both of our communities better," said Eke.
Reynolds agreed, adding, "It could bring both communities closer together."
Reynolds also pointed out, "We had talked to our business association, and they were very excited about this, about bringing in potential extra customers. And we had talked to the people at Old Fort Niagara, and they were supportive because it would bring in additional folks from the Canadian side. It would definitely be a positive for both communities."
In 2006, the Village of Youngstown created South Waterfront Park on the south side of the Youngstown Yacht Club on Water Street, facing Niagara-on-the-Lake across the river, for about $360,000.
This included $180,000 in grant money procured by the late Mayor Neil C. Riordan, combined with a village match that included in-kind services. Riordan had envisioned the park as a welcoming site for potential ferry patrons, as well as residents, boaters, anglers and tourists.
The village had earlier rehabilitated the waterfront portion of Constitution Park, which begins on Main Street across from Falkner Park and continues down a wooden staircase to the river to the north of the Yacht Club. Refurbishing this park cost about $300,000, supported by state and federal grant money and some village money and in-kind services.
Burmaster said the chosen spot in prior plans was South Waterfront Park, adding that a ferry's intermittent use would not block the dock from public use.
He imagines visitors to Fort Niagara seeing Fort George just across the river and wondering how to easily get there, or people traveling to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see the Shaw Festival or visit the wineries.
He also envisions people visiting Youngstown from Canada and touring the village, as well as traveling to Lewiston and Niagara Falls.
"This is not a dead issue," Burmaster said. "The Canadian side just doesn't seem to do things as quickly as the U.S. side.
"We had been invited to go to Ottawa before, but it never really materialized and a lot of time has elapsed, but Sam and I have decided we're not giving up. He and John and I need to get together and hash things over and put the push on."
"We may have lost some of our funding from before, just because we haven't had contact with them and we've lost some momentum, but there may still be some government assistance available," Burmaster said. "And, this is something the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission may be interested in, or maybe even the casinos.
Burmaster said, "It all sounds possible and I say, 'Let's just do it!' "