A ceremonial ribbon cutting was held Tuesday morning, marking the completion of a $6.2 million reconfiguration of Niagara Falls State Park's welcome plaza. The project's goals, in addition to improving mobility for pedestrians and access for vehicles, was to make the park and the City of Niagara Falls more mutually visible.
State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, one of several guests, said he could recall that many years back, while the falls were an attraction, the entrance to the park was not.
"The entrance to the park seemed like you were going into a foreign land. It was not inviting. It did not yell out to the tourists 'come visit,'" he said. "And once you were in the park, you had no idea there was a city."
Mark Mistretta, District Director for New York State Parks, described many of the changes under the plaza transformation, including newer and additional signage, new landscaping, enhanced lighting and enhanced pedestrian circulation. But he also noted the removal of old landscaping and objects to make way for a space from which there are fewer obstructions of view than years before.
"We had a 35-year-old tired landscape that was overgrown. There were safety concerns that the old Great Lakes Garden had seen its time," Mistretta said. "So we have removed that to get those sight lines open and make it more transparent, because we want the patrons to really be oriented to the offerings both within the park and within the city, in both directions."
Niagara Falls mayor Robert Restaino acknowledged the state's investments in its park at Niagara Falls and also in the city's tourist district. He expressed his gratitude for what he described as their recognition of the importance of the city. He also noted that, just over six months into his term as mayor, most of it has been spent staying indoors and separated amid a pandemic.
"Every time we can come to an event like this, and sort of shake the dust off and announce again that we're back, we're open for business and we welcome everyone here, it's always a pleasant thing," said Restaino, further declaring that the city has "turned the corner" and is "on its way back."
The plaza reconfiguration is just one element in a broader multi-year $70 million investment by the state into updating Niagara Falls State Park. Other projects in recent years have included a newer Cave of the Winds interactive pavilion, improved viewing points at several locations along the park and newer pedestrian walkways.
State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid noted that there are more improvements needed, including to the bridge near the brink of the American Falls. But he considers completion of the welcome plaza a critical step forward.
"This is our face of the City of Niagara Falls," he said. "I'm very proud to say that we've reopened this, made this, created these axes, these avenues into the city to sort of say, we are part of this city. And we really want people to be coming from this city and have these businesses be part of the community that we're creating here."
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul echoed the hope that improved visibility of the city from the park, and vice versa, will improve business for both.
"As the park goes, as the city goes, there's a direct connection. And this park here, this new gateway, creates that connection that was missing for a long time. We want people to come here, but then leave and go to the local attractions, stop by the Culinary Center for some magnificent pastries, go to bakeries, go to restaurants, discover the downtown, spend your money in the hotels as we're reopening new ones, literally every year," Hochul said. "And I want to make sure that we continue that strong relationship between the park and the city so they can both rise together."
Mistretta said all that needs to happen now is for the buses to arrive again, so that the reconfiguration of vehicle access can be demonstrated. How many come in the next weeks remains to be seen, amid a continuing pandemic and the adjacent bridge to Canada still closed to most traffic through late August at the earliest.