LOCKPORT – In his State of the City address at the start of the year, Mayor Michael W. Tucker promised that 2013 was going to be “a year to remember” in Lockport.
He was right.
From the commencement of several long-awaited projects to a flood that filled hundreds of basements, from federal action on relocating residents whose homes were threatened by toxic chemicals to a fiscal crisis, 2013 changed many things in Lockport.
“It certainly was a year of dueling themes with unprecedented new development as well as fiscal crisis,” Common Council President Anne E. McCaffrey said.
Tucker said seven of the eight major projects he touted in his speech actually happened, the sole exception being the construction of an addition to the Salvation Army headquarters. The delay, caused by design issues, has pushed that project back to spring 2014.
But work actually began on the Flight of Five restoration and the new ice arena, after years of talk and hunting for money.
The Flight of Five, the 19th century Erie Canal locks, will be returned to working order, or at least two of the five locks will be. Work started in October and is targeted to be complete in July.
Two locks were chosen because there was not the funding to do all five at once. The sight of cranes in downtown Lockport, a novelty not seen for many years, will alert the residents that something important is happening at the locks – or so Tucker hopes.
“Once people actually see the work, see the benefit of the amount of people who come in to see it, that will make it easier for us to raise the rest,” Tucker said. “We gave Bergmann (Associates, the design firm) over $900,000, and you don’t see anything for it.”
Two part-time summer employees will work on the Flight, with the demonstration of locking a replica boat through the two locks occurring once a day.
Harrison Place, the former Harrison Radiator plant at Walnut and Washburn streets, received its first major tenant as Trek Inc. moved from Medina, bringing about 100 jobs with it after a $4 million renovation of the space.
“I believe that bringing 100 jobs to downtown Lockport is the most impactful occurrence for the city in 2013,” McCaffrey said.
The city tore down the Main Street parking ramp, vacant for seven years, and started work on a replacement parking lot while clearing a long-forgotten vista over the Erie Canal.
The ramp had long blocked easy access to a canal overlook, which has some of the best views of the waterway. Once paving is done early in 2014, it will be an easy matter to take in that view.
“By eliminating the behemoth of a ramp, we have drastically improved both the aesthetics and the use of the Main Street-Pine Street corner,” McCaffrey said.
Another vista was cleared July 30, when a major fire destroyed the old Kohl’s Cycle warehouse on Gooding Street. However, it was a financial blow to the city, which, Tucker said, had to borrow $650,000 to complete the demolition and haul the asbestos-laden debris away.
Ironically, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation had given the city a grant to remove the warehouse but later changed its mind.
“That hurt us. I’m glad it’s gone. It gives us an opportunity, but we had that grant in hand, for free, to knock that building down,” Tucker said.
There was economic development, too. Old City Hall came back to life, as a new winery and local food store, augmented by a dessert shop, opened in the Pine Street edifice.
Around the corner, Lake Effect Ice Cream, Lockport’s booming artisan dessert maker, opened its new location at the east end of Canal Street, while the Hydraulic Race Co. opened its new ticket office and visitor center for the Lockport Cave a block away on Gooding Street, complete with a deck overlooking the canal.
McCaffrey said, “The new Lake Effect Ice Cream building, renovation of Old City Hall to incorporate the Flight of Five Winery and Sweet Melodies, the new Lockport Cave visitors building and the train platform together are making up an exciting new area for residents and tourists alike.”
She was referring to the $25,000 railroad platform, built on Gooding Street in the fall to accommodate excursion trains to and from Medina.
“We’re trying to get that railroad to go all the way to Niagara Falls,” Tucker said.
However, he said CSX, which owns the track, hasn’t shown much interest in allowing that. The rail line is used almost exclusively for freight.
“If we can get people to go back and forth from here to the Falls, or from Medina to the Falls via railroad, I think that opens up a whole new set of new tourists,” Tucker said. “Four or five years ago, CSX said, ‘OK, we’ll let you do it,’ but they wanted a $1 billion insurance policy, which tells you they don’t want you to do it.”
A short distance to the north, on Water Street, residents of five homes were promised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the federal government would pay to relocate them to safer ground, as periodic overflows of Eighteen Mile Creek, a Superfund site primarily because of toxic chemicals from the old Flintkote plant on the other side of the creek, polluted their yards.
However, the money has yet to be appropriated, and the residents remain.
A less-dangerous state Superfund site, the former Peters Dry Cleaning store on Willow Street, was demolished in October, nearly two years after it partially collapsed.
The city’s finances also crumbled, as the State Comptroller’s Office deemed Lockport “moderately stressed” because of high personnel expenses and low fund balances.
The Common Council passed a budget that included 16 layoffs, half of them in the Fire Department, and then set about restoring jobs. The Council even considered laying off the fire chief but backed down from that idea.
“We’ll still have a healthy staff of 38 firefighters plus some officers when it’s over,” Tucker said.
A new police union contract enabled the city to avoid layoffs as it cleared the way for four early retirements, and a Fire Department job also was saved by a retirement. But the Council refused to stop the layoff of a streets laborer and an account clerk in City Hall because of a lack of union concessions.
Tucker said the budget crunch is stopping several worthwhile moves, such as the hiring of a marketing director, which he thinks the city needs to spread the word about its new attractions, and an upgraded city website.
“Unfortunately, because of our financial situation, it’s not going to be top of the list,” the mayor said. “We’ll have more people coming to our city with the ice rink and the Flight of Five. We’ve got to capitalize on that investment … That position is now overdue.”
A flash flood caused by an afternoon of torrential rains June 28 led hundreds of residents to apply for emergency state aid, which was delivered personally by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during two visits to the city, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency said no to helping homeowners.
The Friday night concert series had a new venue in the city parking lot at Elm and Chestnut streets. The first show was scrubbed because the headline band’s lead singer went AWOL, but it was just as well because that was the day of the flash flood, so the show would have been canceled anyway.
By the end of the year, the entire series had been canceled because the city subsidies were cut out of the budget, although Tucker was confident he would be able to announce a new, completely privately funded concert series in early 2014.
A project that was on no one’s radar at the start of the year took up considerable time, as an effort to rename a city park for Lockport native Patricia Parete, a Buffalo police officer who died Feb. 2 of injuries caused when she was shot six years ago, led to the appointment of a committee to create a Fallen Heroes Memorial.
Although a ceremony was held in late October to mark the monument site in Outwater Park, the same day as the symbolic beginning of the Lockport Ice Arena and Sports Center project, the committee handling the project was far short of the money it needed to build the memorial.
Meanwhile, All Saints Catholic Church, one of the city’s two surviving Catholic parishes, tore down its disused former school and started building a parish hall on the site.
There was an election, but you’d be excused for not noticing, as only one of the six aldermen had an opponent, and next year’s Council will look just like this year’s.The election was one of the few non-events in a dizzying year of major stories in Lockport.
“It’s really been an amazing year,” Tucker said. “I would say 2013 will go down as an unprecedented year of development in the city. I can’t imagine any other year where that much stuff was going on.”