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NIAGARA FALLS – Joseph S. Hotchkiss, a Niagara University business management major who graduated this month, didn’t even realize there was a park on Third Street. “I just kind of stumbled across it as I was walking to work,” said Hotchkiss, a bartender at Wine on Third.

He said that when he found the small park this spring at the corner of Third and Niagara streets it was neglected and left in disrepair. But he saw potential and went into action, spending his entire summer reviving “Hydraulic Park.”

Part of his inspiration was his desire to improve downtown Niagara Falls and give tourists a walkable space they can visit when they are in the area. Hotchkiss said he was inspired to work on the project through his class “Transforming Business,” taught by Mitch Alegre, which explored the value of helping out your surrounding community.

“Hydraulic Park was the perfect opportunity to start a change in the way people view the Falls, Hotchkiss thought.

It was a rundown space in a prime location, and no one had done anything in years.

“I wanted to show residents of Niagara Falls that there are people interested in making a change,” said Hotchkiss.

His cleanup efforts have gotten the attention of community leaders .

He received the Member Award from the Niagara Beautification Commission in September and was honored with the Main Street Business and Professional Association’s Michael A. Brundidge Community Service Award in November.

But even though he has graduated, he’s not done with the park and has a number of ideas to move forward.

It’s not like Hotchkiss needs more to add to his plate.

The 30-year-old native of Binghamton made Niagara Falls his home when he came here five years ago with the U.S. Coast Guard. Since then, he met his wife at the Brickyard in Lewiston, and they became new parents a few months ago. He graduated from Niagara County Community College and was finishing up his degree at Niagara University when he discovered Hydraulic Park. His next career move includes plans to open up a coffee shop – where else? – on Third Street.

Are you surprised about how excited people have gotten about this?

Yes. People think it’s great that I took it under my wing to get something done.

How did this start? Tell me what you found that first day in April.

I work on Third Street, and I was just walking around and stumbled upon (the park), and I said what everybody says, “I didn’t even know there was a park there.” So I went in and walked around, and immediately saw potential for that to be a focal point for the Third Street business district.

What did it look like?

There was just tons of weeds and leaves. It hadn’t been taken care of in years. There was a lot of garbage and beer cans. There is a utility shed with benches that some homeless people had taken for their home.

But this was all hidden?

Hidden by trees. It was dark and overgrown. One of the focal points of the original park was a fountain, but they filled it in with dirt because people kept putting bubbles in it. I roto-tilled it and pulled all the weeds out.

How long did this cleanup take?

I started in April, and I probably have got 40 to 50 hours into it.

Where did you find the time?

This summer, while my wife was pregnant, I had my days free, and I’d work around the house then spend some times (at the park.) When I got out of the Coast Guard, I landscaped, and I enjoyed doing manual labor.

Did you get some help?

Yes, and Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo got the Niagara Beautification Commission involved, and they got some money from the property owners ($1,100 to buy flowers, mulch and a trash can.) The Niagara Beautification Commission took this on as a project. Youth Works, which travels around the coast, came and helped.

It’s not a city park?

Sheraton Hotel owns it. We’ve been limited talking to them. The property used to belong to People’s Trust Bank, and at some point it was sold to the Sheraton. I hope this exposure builds a better communication with (the Sheraton) because we’ve gotten some money and cooperation, but there’s nothing to stop them from just putting up a building there. We want to show that having a park in this space is more significant than any building you could put up. There’s not a lot of community parks tourists can hang out in. It would be great if the city could acquire it.

Can you say you are done now?

It still needs a lot of work. Years of work. Next spring we will be back there. I have a vision for the park. To get the brickwork fixed up, because it’s a hazard right now. The amphitheater has stadium seating, and the benches need to be replaced because the wood is all rotted. There has to be electricity restored to the park, and we’d like to see a playground that can be used by tourists.

You have your degree, do you have any plans for your future?

I’m in the process of opening my own coffee shop and deli.

Is it called Hydraulic Coffee Shop?

No, it’s too early for a name, but we have acquired a building – on Third Street. As a business I would like to be able to host some events down there.

This sounds very important to you.

It’s a centerpiece for when people come in to Third Street, and now there’s a bunch of new businesses going up. A new pizza bistro opened up next to Wine on Third; there’s an old place called Unc’s; and Bragg’s was bought by a developer who is going to be renovating it in the spring; myself; and another guy named Craig Avery, a developer who has bought some buildings and is turning them into high end apartments. It was all part of a plan to get the whole downtown area turned around.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.