Gateway ambitions stuck in neutral

Plans for a $16 million Gateway Center in Ripley were announced in the fall of 2019.

RIPLEY — For decades, the New York border was anything but welcoming for travelers heading east on Interstate 90. Toll booths near Exit 61 were often the first impression for drivers heading into the Empire State, a land of high taxes and fees.

Now that those barriers have been removed in favor of cashless tolling, a concrete effort– buoyed greatly by area officials and residents — has taken place to change the bleak perspective. With last month’s opening of Love’s Travel Center on Shortman Road, an effort to shine a brighter light not only on Chautauqua County and all of Western New York, was taken.

“We’re excited to open a fourth location in New York,” said Greg Love, co-chief executive officer of Love’s in March. “Love’s offers clean and safe places for customers to stop when they’re on the road and team members will get them back on the way to their destination quickly and safely.”

It is a transformation that is long overdue.

The former Colonial Restaurant and Hotel buildings that deteriorated to the point of no return had become monuments of inaction and stagnancy that all too often plagues this region.

Through the building of the new travel center, which is one piece of the puzzle, there is another statement being made. After nearly 35 years of waiting for something special to happen at the state line, leaders here quit waiting for action from Albany.

In addition to fuel and a convenience store, the center includes a Hardee’s restaurant, 94 truck parking spaces, 49 car parking spaces, eight diesel bays, eight showers, laundry facilities, a CAT scale, a Mobile to Go Zone with the latest GPS, headsets and smartphone accessories, and a dog park. It is a significant start, but still too far from the desired finish line.

Chautauqua County leaders in the fall of 2019 unveiled an ambitious $16 million plan with numerous local stakeholders on a structure that would be even more welcoming while promoting what the region has to offer. “The Gateway Center is designed to get people to leave the Thruway,” said Ripley town Supervisor Doug Bowen at the unveiling. “Then, hopefully, what we have inside will entice people to leave the center and go down to Main Street.”

There’s an if you build it, they will come sentiment to the project. That, however, is definitely not the case on the fringes of Erie County.

With a dreadful lack of vision, New York state illogically built an overpriced $25 million Western New York Welcome Center in Grand Island. Opening in 2018, a portion of the ceiling collapsed less than a year later.

As far as use by tourists, the results to are not surprising. An article in The Buffalo News in 2019 noted how the facility resembles a “ghost town” due to its inconvenient location — that is not even on the state Thruway. Instead, drivers must go out of their way to get there. After exiting off Interstate 90 to Interstate 190 North, motorists then take Exit 19 and Whitehaven Road to drive to the center.

Even Patrick J. Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institue in Niagara Falls, understood the boondoggle. “It is clearly in the wrong place,” he told the News in 2019. “I’ve been coming for a year and there’s usually no one here.”

This could seemingly open a door for the Ripley location, which would be a trouble-free option for tourists who are looking to make a quick stop. Mark Geise, deputy county executive for economic development and president and chief executive officer of the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency, said COVID-19 ended some of the momentum for that county’s Gateway Center in Ripley.

He’s hopeful for the future, but notes that challenges remain. “I think the next step is to find a private operator … who would be willing to step up and make a commitment to lease and operate the facility based on our vision,” Geise said recently. “The county does not have the wherewithal or appetite to fill this role. … It certainly doesn’t hurt that Love’s has made an investment there, and that water and sewer infrastructure are now available; however, this alone is not nearly enough.”

There was a bucket of stimulus funding the federal government unloaded for this region. Some of those funds could help with this project. Ultimately, that type of call could come from a group of county legislators who don’t like making decisions that require outside the box thinking and current Executive PJ Wendel.

Local elected officials were key to making the Love’s happen. Are those in office willing and able to embrace a continued transformation at the border?

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.


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