Nick Southard was soaking up the sunshine at Gallagher Beach on a chilly evening when I asked him what he thought of a plan to turn the land into a state park.
“When the state takes over, this place will be a dump,” said Southard, who stops at the Lake Erie waterfront on his daily commute. “Trust me.”
The skepticism is well deserved.
It was little more than two years ago that Hamburg took over Woodlawn Beach, just a few miles south, from the state. The state let Joseph Davis State Park fall into such disrepair that the Town of Lewiston stepped up to run it.
And then there’s Niagara Falls State Park, which attracts millions of visitors along with their parking fees, souvenir purchases and attraction tickets. Still, the park frayed under the state’s management until a plan last year to tap a long-term settlement to pay for $25 million in badly needed park upgrades.
So you can forgive people like Southard for taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the governor’s announcement last week that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s Small Boat Harbor and a pebble beach on the outer harbor would be taken over by the state.
The state, facing budget calamity in years past, neglected parks and ignored long-term maintenance.
Things are looking up. Three years ago, the newly formed Alliance for New York State Parks warned that the park system was “in crisis.” Since then, said alliance Executive Director Erik Kulleseid, they’ve seen a “remarkable turnaround” as the Cuomo administration revived park resources.
“As long as the administration retains its strong commitment to rebuilding parks, the new park looks like a net positive,” Kulleseid said.
But concerns remain, including about the ability to operate and maintain state park land with a thin workforce and the lack of permanent funding dedicated to fixing up parks.
The NFTA sat on the waterfront land for too long and came dangerously close to selling off a prime public asset to a private developer. Making Gallagher Beach a state park is an important step toward ensuring people will be able to enjoy a sunset or launch a windsurfing board there long into the future.
But the new park – just like Knox Farm and Niagara Falls – will be at the mercy of Albany’s volatile budget whims. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put his personal stamp on making the outer harbor park project succeed. But what about the next governor?
There’s a solution. The Alliance for State Parks has advocated for a 5-cent fee on plastic shopping bags dedicated to keeping up the state’s parks. The idea is to reduce the use of disposal bags, but it would also go a long way toward making sure there’s money to maintain the sprawling park system.
Last week, as Southard watched the sunset over Lake Erie, James and Diana Babst were discovering Gallagher Beach for the first time. They moved to Sloan nine years ago from Long Island, and Diana has been traveling back there with their two children each summer to spend time on the shore.
They were blown away to learn about the outer harbor land.
“It was like, ‘We have a beach? Let’s go see,’” James Babst said.
Gallagher Beach has been overlooked for years. But so have many of our state parks. They all deserve a long-term commitment from the state.