NFTA takes step to shed waterfront land

May 18, 2012 Updated May 18, 2012 at 6:50 AM EDT

By WKBW News
By Business First by James Fink

May 18, 2012 Updated May 18, 2012 at 6:50 AM EDT

Reiterating a need to focus on its core mission of providing public transportation and running two major airports, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority took the first step in relinquishing its ownership of the 384-acre Outer Harbor property along Buffalo's waterfront.

Members of the NFTA's Property Risk Management Committee, which oversees such matters, voted unanimously Thursday morning to begin formal negotiations of turning over its ownership of the expansive site to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which like the authority, is a state agency, or the City of Buffalo. Mayor Byron Brown, two weeks ago, said the city might be interested in controlling the Outer Harbor.

There is sentiment, though, that the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. will end up as the property's owner. Such a call has is being led by Rep. Brian Higgins.

A formal transfer package will ultimately have to be approved by the full NFTA board, but the committee's vote allows for the talks to commence.

"The bottom line, and I want to re-iterate this, is that the (NFTA) board is eager to get out of the Outer Harbor and waterfront business," said Howard Zemsky, NFTA chairman. "We are excited about focusing on our core mission of providing transit service."

The NFTA committee vote comes just days after Higgins, D-Buffalo, urged the land transfer to take place by Oct. 1.

Last summer, the NFTA issued a bid for potential buyers of its 1,006-slip Small Boat Harbor operation and some surrounding real estate including its Terminal A and Terminal B buildings. Bear Development offered $3 million but the deal was tabled because of talks centering around the cost of remediating the land. The bid also created a community stir that led to Thursday's vote and the start of talks.

Tom Dee, president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., said he wants to discuss a takeover.

"I absolutely want to talk with them," Dee said. "Our mission is to revitalize the Western New York waterfront. That is our core competency and theirs is transportation."

No plans have been formulated for what the ECHDC will do with the property.

The NFTA has controlled the Outer Harbor dating back to the late 1950s. In recent years, it has revitalized the Small Boat Harbor, negotiated with restaurateur Tucker Curtin to take over Dug's Dive and invested more than $13 million on remediation work along the property including constructing a 1.5 mile-long, looped walkway. Additional investments are needed at the harbor; that is funding that the NFTA does not have.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has turned the 20-acre Canalside dream in downtown Buffalo into a reality, now attracting more than 400,000 people to the waterfront each summer.

Zemsky said the NFTA will continue to run and operate the Outer Harbor land including the Small Boat Harbor until the land transfer takes place. Slips at the harbor are being rented at a faster than expected rate and this summer, a series of concerts are also planned for the Outer Harbor.

Still, the NFTA wants to focus on running its fleet of buses, the Metro Rail line and handling operations at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Niagara Falls International Airport.

"There has been no disagreement among our board members when it comes to us getting out of the waterfront," Zemsky said. "Us getting out of the waterfront is the best case scenario for the NFTA and the best case scenario for the public."

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