Rocking the boat over city waterfront

OBSERVER Photo With all the problems facing the city of Dunkirk, access or improvements to the pier could not have possibly been a priority to any resident.

Race World Offshore representatives were beaming earlier this month during their visit to Dunkirk in anticipation of the boat races that will take place in the middle of August. It was a picture-perfect day for our community on the waterfront.

Temperatures were in the mid 70s. There was a gentle breeze. Even Lake Erie, which has a reputation for being choppy once the winds arrive, seemed calm.

As Rodrick Cox, business development officer, Rich Dancisin and Larry Bleil, chief executive officer, all of Race World Offshore gathered at the pier for a photo, they were in awe. Not everywhere in the country — or even along the Great Lakes — has the potential that our city and its waterfront have.

“What’s really neat is everything is right here … it’s such a close location,” Cox said. “It’s a very nice community.”

Race organizers, as well as city officials, have great expectations for the summer. Besides the weekly Music on the Pier events and the opening of the Wright Park splash pad, the boat race is expected to generate major attention — locally and worldwide.

One of the major discussions taking place in recent days behind the scenes has been a battle by NBC and CBS Sports to broadcast the event, which will run from Aug. 17 to 19. It seems as though the networks are in bidding war for the rights. Eventually, one network will win the opportunity to showcase the northern Chautauqua County race.

But Dunkirk’s greatest asset — its waters — have been facing some storm clouds in recent weeks.

To the west, NRG Energy Inc.’s commitment to repowering the more than 70-year-old plant is in question due to the unexpected costs of possibly $100 million to reconnect to the power grid. Even those who had been upbeat about the plant converting from coal to natural gas to produce electricity are more than mildly concerned.

On the pier, though there has been a “compromise” of sorts reached on the plans for the structure this week, there remains angst.

Dunkirk’s pier is Fredonia’s Barker Common fence. And how about the plans for these projects? In both cases, the public was presented at a hearing the ideas from consultants — who are not local. Those same consultants do not meet with key stakeholders about what is best for our community at these significant sites. Thus, a plan that brings pushback.

On looks alone, the pier is the least of Dunkirk’s worries. That’s why it was jaw-dropping to hear the city’s selective building and code enforcement officer Allan Zurawski comment on the controversial proposal earlier this week. With all the embarrassing eyesores throughout the city — especially in the heart of downtown — Zurawski is mute. In regard to the pier, a structure he does not have to oversee, he speaks up.

How courageous.

That site also looms large with the August boat races, which still need financial support. During the last two summers, air shows were the big-ticket item for the city. But what those who viewed the spectacle always seemed to question were the attendance figures that seemed inflated.

Without a doubt, the largest draw for Dunkirk annually is the Fourth of July fireworks. On the best of summer days, the holiday brings 15,000 to the waterfront. Lake Shore Drive traffic is stop-and-go and parking lots are filled.

Previous air show estimates have been between 30,000 to 45,000. Great event, but hardly the type of bustling activity you see on the Fourth.

Boat-race turnout is expected to be more than that. There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic, but it also is not being honest.

Dunkirk is on the right track promoting its waterfront. But a redesigned pier, an empty power plant, vacant downtown dilapidating structures ignored by city hall and the other bells and whistles are not sustainable pieces to changing a downtrodden city image.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.