By Mark Scheer and Timothy Chipp
The Tonawanda News
NIAGARA FALLS — For some, Monday's open house was the first opportunity to glimpse at the interior of an historic building that has sat vacant for years.
For others, the newly renovated U.S. Customhouse off Whirlpool Street, which is being developed as an Underground Railroad interpretive center and museum, represents a place where the past, present and future are coming to meet.
"This is big," Eva Nicklas, a member of the Lewiston Council for the Arts, said as she took in the open house Monday. "Our history is our future. People want to know where we come from."
While the public had its first chance to appreciate the work of the $2.7 million renovation project, Kevin Cottrell, the man leading the effort to develop the new Underground Railroad portion of the building, said the site is really just the start of something much bigger.
"This is just the beginning," he said. "We've talked about the envelope of the building being done and all that, but the reality is we are just getting started."
Constructed in 1863, the customhouse was in disrepair when the city acquired the property in 2003 as part of the development of the International Train Station and Intermodal Transportation Center in the city's North End. It will eventually serve as home to the Underground Railroad center, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs.
Cottrell, a state employee, is now working with a private consultant on the development of a series of exhibits that will be housed in the interpretative center and offer visitors information on the history of the Underground Railroad in Niagara County. The exhibits, which are expected to be completed in about a year, will focus on well-known figures like Harriet Tubman but also regional ties to the Underground Railroad, including Niagara Falls elements like the old Cataract House and points of interest in Lewiston, Lockport and other areas.
"The center is designed to peak your interest and get you to want to explore Niagara County's Underground Railroad history," Cottrell said.
Sharing the space with the office of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs came about with the development of the city's new Amtrak train station next door. The train station project is expected to cost in excess of $50 million with most of the funding coming from state and federal sources.
The customhouse renovation is the first of three phases in the overall project. The second phase — work on railroad lines and the rail bridge over Lewiston Road — started last year and will be completed in 2012. The final phase — construction of the actual train station — is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2014.
If everything goes according to plan, Mayor Paul Dyster said, the stop could be one of the first to receive high-speed rail service from Canada, a goal Dyster said he's been dreaming of since he began contemplating his run for the city's top executive position.
"When I was even thinking of running back in 2007, one of the things that propelled me forward was a vision of this day," he said. "I'm tired of seeing California be at the forefront. I want my state and my city to be at the forefront for once. And we're playing a key role."