By Karen Carr Keefe
The year 2017 has been one of growth and growing pains for Grand Island.
From cashless tollbooths at the bridges in 2018, to a West River recreation trail, to a new community center, to a state Welcome Center here, Islanders are engaging in a lively discussion of the pros and cons of new developments, hoping their hometown comes out a winner.
In other top news stories this year, Grand Islanders came through big time in a drive to fund a room at the new John R. Oishei Children's Hospital, and the GOP won the November elections in a clean sweep. Here is a roundup of some of the significant news stories of the past year that have people talking.
Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray is shown in front of a diagram of the new welcome center to be located on Grand Island. (Photo by Alice Gerard)
Cashless tolling and a Welcome Center
Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to town Aug. 22 to announce high-speed, open-road, cashless tolling at the Grand Island bridges in March 2018. Sensor technology reads E-ZPass tags and takes license plate images, so drivers will no longer have to stop, but they'll still have to pay. Cuomo also unveiled the design of the Western New York Welcome Center, which is planned for Alvin Road adjacent to the I-190.
The new toll technology is designed to reduce traffic congestion, improve safety and reduce air pollution. The governor said that, with the addition of cashless tolling and a new welcome center, "we are not only supporting a growing regional economy, but also raising the profile of tourist attractions in communities across Western New York."
Letter-writers to the Dispatch had mixed reviews on the governor's message. One reminded readers that the tolls, themselves, not just the tollbooths, were supposed to be removed. "Tolls are bad," was her bottom line, saying that the new technology would just perpetuate the problem. Islanders were told when the bridges were built in 1935 and 1962 that when the bridge construction costs were paid off in 1996, the tolls would be removed.
Another pair of Island residents wrote that they believe the cashless tolls "will lessen traffic pollution by improving the flow of traffic." They also said that while removing the tolls would be great for residents returning home on the bridges, "the benefits of living in this wonderful community far outweigh the drawbacks."
Brian Michel, leader of a citizen activist group to remove the Grand Island bridge tolls to save time and money, said at a forum in March that the cashless tolls are the next best thing to no tolls. "I just think anything is better than the status quo as we know it today."
West River Trail
Work on the new 8-mile West River Connector Trail will begin in the spring, but the controversy over its placement will likely trail a long way into the future. The $2.4 million state project to connect Beaver Island and Buckhorn state parks will close West River Parkway, a state-owned seasonal road, and turn it into a trail for bicyclists, joggers and nature enthusiasts. Supervisor Nathan McMurray has promoted the trail as a way to open up the beauty of the river views to more people. About $900,000 of the funding will come from the Niagara River Greenway Commission, which envisions the trail as part of the plan to connect Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The Town Board in 2016 voted to reject the state's parkway closure option, and favored an option that would have kept it open to vehicle traffic, instead building the trail alongside it.
When the state's plan for the trail was first unveiled, "Keep the Parkway Open" signs sprouted up on lawns along the West River Road that parallels the parkway. A number of area residents speaking at Town Board meetings said closing the parkway would force more traffic onto West River Road, making the road unsafe. Residents elsewhere on the Island were also divided for and against the plan, which now has been given the green light by the state.
This year saw an ongoing analysis of whether the town needs a new community center. In July, three out of five people who responded to an Island Dispatch survey said the town doesn't need a community center. Most "no" voters supported fixing the Nike Base Park on Whitehaven Road, where the Golden Age Center is now located. But Supervisor Nathan McMurray has called the 60-year-old senior center a money pit. Center director Barbara Gannon said the town engineering department has told her the town "cannot justify putting more money into this building."
Against that backdrop, the issue of how to bring people together at a center has divided the Town Board, which on Dec. 22 voted to approve issuing a request for proposals for a community center. The 3-2 vote followed a more than 30-minute discussion and sometimes heated argument in a work session before the regular meeting. Councilmen Chris Aronica, Ray Billica and Mike Madigan voted yes, and McMurray and Bev Kinney voted no. The majority voted to have potential developers design and build the facility, while the minority preferred a plan to have an architect design it, and then put it out for bid.
The town has hired a consulting firm, Clark Patterson Lee, to conduct studies and public input sessions to gauge the wants and needs of residents.
McMurray said the consultants determined the public supports building a turf field/sports complex, opposes moving the Golden Age Center and needs more public space for culture, recreation and meetings.
GOP sweeps election
The Grand Island endorsed Republicans swept all four seats up for grabs in the Nov. 7 election. The GOP was victorious in the race for two seats on the Town Board, with newcomers Pete Marston and Jennifer Baney winning seats held by Conservative Chris Aronica, and Republican Ray Billica, who chose not to run for re-election. They defeated Democratic candidates Cyndy Montana and Celia Spacone.
Mark Frentzel was re-elected town justice, defeating challenger Eric Soehnlein. Deputy Highway Superintendent Dick Crawford won a close race for highway superintendent over challenger Dan Drexelius to replace retiring Highway Superintendent JT Tomkins.
A day later, Supervisor Nathan McMurray acknowledged his part in the election results in a letter to Islanders. He said he was hoping that a council win by Montana or Spacone or both would give him a board majority.
"Yesterday was a crushing loss, no two ways about it," he wrote. "And for sure, it was in part about me," he said.
"All of the candidates seem to support my positions in general, so I don't think it was about what I've done. But maybe it was about who I am, or at least who I'm perceived to be. It was about the piñata version of me that some have created to whack around," he wrote.
But McMurray stressed that his supporters shouldn't give up the fight. "We're fighting to preserve Grand Island from overdevelopment. We're fighting for conservation on Grand Island. We're fighting for community connections."
He asked his supporters to stay involved in government.
Dr. Stacey Watt, right, presents a check for $25,225 to Amy Habib-Rittling, chair of the John R. Oishei Children's Hospital Capital Campaign to fund a Grand Island room at the new hospital. (Photo by Larry Austin)
The GI Challenge triumphs
Dr. Stacey Watt, a lifelong Island resident and Kaleida Health's chief of service for anesthesia, challenged Grand Islanders to raise $25,000 to fund establishment of a room of care at the new John R. Oishei Children's Hospital in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which opened in November.
A cross-section of the community came together and met that challenge on Aug. 31, celebrating the effort put forth by schools, government, businesses, civic groups and the medical community.
Grand Island was the first community in Western New York to accept and succeed with the challenge. Watt said that in meeting that challenge, the community showed "Grand Island pride and Viking spirit."
Mary Haggerty, principal of Kaegebein Elementary School called the celebration "truly inspiring." A read-a-thon at Kaegebein was one of the districtwide events that raised more than $10,000.
Other stories that topped the news in 2017 also showed the spirit and can-do attitude of Grand Islanders.
•The Charles N. DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Project to honor Grand Island's Medal of Honor recipient is moving forward with the help of the community. In May, construction work changed the face of the park at the intersection of Grand Island Boulevard and Baseline Road. Workers moved concrete blocks into place and filled them with topsoil, forming an end wall around the north side of the property.
DeGlopper was killed in action June 9, 1944, during the D-Day invasion in World War II. His act of heroism saved the lives of the fellow members of his 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.
Eric Anderson, chairman of the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee, said the memorial wouldn't be possible without people donating their time and energy to the effort.
In November, the park expansion received the support of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, making the project eligible for future funding. In December, Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick secured a $5,000 budget allocation for the expansion.
•This year also saw the return of popular events that bring the community together and draw attendees from across Western New York. These include the Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament on June 10 and 11; the Taste of Grand Island on Sept. 23, both of which were held in the town center and produced by local event organizer Corey McGowan; and the Grand Island Relay For Life, a life-affirming event on June 9 that marked its 15th year on the Island. This year's Relay raised more than $100,000 to fund research in the fight against cancer and to increase resources for survivors.
•Grand Island youth showed their spirit of ingenuity and creativity in winning two Western New York competitions again this year. On Jan. 11, Grand Island Central School District students continued their domination in a technology contest by winning the 21st annual Tech Wars competition at Niagara County Community College.
Students from both Veronica Connor Middle School and Grand Island High School took first place in their respective divisions.
GIHS won the high school event for the seventh time in nine years, while VCMS won the middle school event for the third time in four years.
And on Aug. 18, the Grand Island team of Kelsey Mahoney, Julie Klein and Tess Lariviere won the 2017 Chalk Walk competition in Lewiston with their 8-foot by 10-foot chalk mural addressing the theme "Interconnectedness."
Work at the DeGlopper Park Memorial expansion continued this fall at the intersection of Grand Island Boulevard and Baseline Road.