After more than two years of construction, finishing touches are under way on the new lodge at River Fest Park in Buffalo’s First Ward. It’s another of the milestone achievements for one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Plans for the use of the lodge include housing a restaurant, space for special events and displays, and public bathrooms. Valley Community Association Executive Director Peg Overdorf said the building identifies much of Buffalo’s history.
“This was formerly the New York Central freight house property,” explained Overdorf. “If you notice, the gables on the roof are railroad design with double chimneys, so we’re blending in shipping and railroad into the decorations around the building. You’ll soon see interpretive signage which is throughout the park will also be inside the building. So we want it to be an educational place as well.”
“The Lodge” is only a temporary name, with the official moniker to be announced at the public opening in May. Overdorf said the building and the surrounding River Fest Park are both especially important because they bring the South Buffalo community together with the rest of the city. A stone mantle over the lodge’s fireplace reads, “Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend.” Overdorf said the motto reflects her feelings for visitors from outside the First Ward.
Development of the park and the lodge have been funded by 17 grants, totaling more than five million dollars. City of Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder pointed to them as part of the example of how a neighborhood can make a comeback.
“There has been an infusion of nearly $100 million in the Old First Ward which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the City of Buffalo,” said Schroeder. “When you can do that here, you can do that everywhere across the city.”
When visitors look westward from the lodge they will see the Buffalo River, which marks its own milestone achievement this year – completion of a long-running and costly restoration project. Since being declared biologically dead in 1971 by the Environmental Protection Agency, $75 million in mostly federal funding has led to the removal of approximately 67,000 truck-loads of toxic mud and the return of 30 different species of fish.
Redevelopment of the First Ward has been a long-time project for Overdorf. She described seeing her vision come to fruition this year as “amazing.” Overdorf hopes the next steps for the First Ward will bring new housing. She would like to see condos built with the intent of drawing suburban “empty nesters” who want to invest in homes and take part in the neighborhood’s year-round activities.