Great Lakes research center proposed for port
Written by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle   
Wednesday, 01 February 2006 10:08

Offering travel across Lake Ontario didn't prove successful, but local scientists hope that probing what's under the waves could offer the Charlotte waterfront a rebirth.

A proposal for a $7 million Great Lakes research and educational center, including an aquarium, is gaining momentum as the city plans for the future of the terminal at the mouth of the Genesee River.

Initially, the State University College at Brockport, which is behind the plan for the Lake Ontario Natural Resource Center, had considered building the facility within Hamlin Beach State Park.

But after the ferry debuted last year, the port became a more desirable location, said William Condo, a Charlotte resident who is volunteering his time to promote the project. With the ferry's demise last month, the research center has emerged as a key to redevelopment, he said. "This suddenly turned out to be the most viable thing that might happen down there."

Supporters have secured more than $300,000 for the center from several federal sources, with the support of Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Thomas Reynolds, R-Clarence, Erie County.

And SUNY Brockport President John Halstead has made the project his No. 1 priority for federal funding, according to Joseph Makarewicz, distinguished professor of environmental science and biology at SUNY Brockport and one of the researchers behind the center.

Halstead on Tuesday described the proposed center as "a strategically located icon for educational programs, job creation and the study of environmental issues."

Halstead met with Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy to discuss the project, but the mayor wants more information before he makes a commitment, city spokesman Gary Walker said Tuesday.

"[Duffy's] initial blush is that it's an exciting project with lots of promise," Walker said.

Since last summer, the city and the college have been negotiating the terms of a memorandum of agreement, stating their support for the project and proposing a location just north of the ferry terminal. However, discussion slowed when then-Deputy Commissioner of Community Development Larry Stid died in November.

Recently, City Councilman Bob Stevenson encouraged consideration of the research center, which he recalled from discussions nearly 10 years ago, he said. "We're looking at everything," Stevenson said of the redevelopment effort.

And so, Sasaki Associates Inc., the firm the city hired to plan for the ferry terminal's redevelopment, is including the Lake Ontario Natural Resource Center in at least one of its alternative plans for the port, said Varoujan Hagopain, principal planner. The center's location, however, is not set in stone, he said.

"It could be on the river, it could be farther up, farther down. It could be in the terminal building. It could be anywhere at this point," Hagopain said.

Sasaki Associates, which is based in Watertown, Mass., is preparing several different concepts for the port and is expected to present its proposals by May.

Meanwhile SUNY Brockport is finalizing the details for a research facility that may employ as many as 10 people and attract dozens of researchers from throughout the Great Lakes region, Makarewicz said.

The port would allow research vessels to dock, and projects could run the gamut from invasive species to contaminants, fisheries to watershed issues, he said.

"On the American side of Lake Ontario, there are no research facilities," Makarewicz said.

Faculty and students from most of the local colleges and universities already collaborate with SUNY Brockport through the Great Lakes Research Consortium, and a number of their activities could be shifted to the center, he said.

Research efforts based at the Brockport campus a few miles inland have brought in more than $15 million in grants over the past 20 years for studying the Lake Ontario watershed. With the research center, the potential for securing research funds would only increase, Makarewicz said.

Classrooms and an auditorium would also offer both Brockport faculty and local elementary and high schools the opportunity to conduct classes on-site, offering students hands-on ecology and biology.

And a small aquarium of lake-dwelling plants and animals, paired with an educational outreach program, could attract visitors to the port to learn more about Lake Ontario, he said.

"One of the things the port needs is seven-days-a-week, 12-months-of-the-year activity there," said Condo, a public relations consultant who is volunteering his services because he believes the center would be good for his community.

Business owners in the empty ferry terminal said Tuesday that the center sounds like a good idea.

"Any attraction that could bring people here would be a positive thing," said Kiran Patel, owner of Quizno's sub shop.

Bill Briggs, who owns the Lakeside Floral and Antique Gallery, liked the fact that an aquarium and educational center could draw families to the lakefront.

"If you go to any of the major cities, there's always an aquatic zoo on the waterfront," he said. "I think it would be great."

And if researchers at the center are successful in addressing the water pollution problems near the Genesee River outlet, local businesses would get a double benefit, said Tom Beaman, owner of the California Rollin' II Sushi Bar.

Even the center's researchers could make a big difference for nearby restaurants, he said.

"Every person is going to help," Beaman said.

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