By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — It’s been years since supporters of the Niagara Aerospace Museum were able to show off pieces of Western New York’s aviation history to patrons in Niagara County.
Today, thanks to an agreement reached recently with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, museum organizers are preparing to re-open inside a Niagara County location with a very definite aviation feel — the former passenger terminal at Niagara Falls International Airport.
“We think it’s going to be a good fit for the museum,” said Hugh Neeson, development director for the aerospace museum. “Many aviation museums are (at) airports. It just kind of fits together. We hope to tap into the additional traffic the new Niagara Falls airport terminal is generating in and out.”
The aerospace museum last operated in the Falls area in 2008 when it was located inside the Seneca Office Building downtown. The museum’s board was forced to move out of that facility when the building’s owners — the Seneca Gaming Corp. — moved its offices into the space. Up until last year, the Aerospace Museum’s holdings were on display at the First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo. The museum’s exhibits have since been stored in the old Bell Aircraft Plant near both the former and current Falls airport passenger terminals in the Town of Wheatfield.
Neeson said museum officials will continue to use the Bell plant site for its main offices, research library and restoration facility where staffers have continued to work to preserve key aviation artifacts. For the past year, the Bell site has been open to the public by appointment only.
Neeson said museum officials are hoping to be ready to offer exhibits like those previously housed inside the old museum site in downtown Niagara Falls by May.
He said the new site puts the museum in what he described as an “aerospace neighborhood” where it will not only find good company in the new Falls terminal and the old Bell plant but the nearby Calspan research facility and the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station as well. Neeson credited state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, with helping to put officials from the museum and the NFTA together to broker the new lease agreement for the space at the former passenger terminal.
Maziarz and other elected officials have called a press conference for noon today to discuss aspects of the museum plan.
Earlier this week, Neeson said the museum inside the former passenger terminal will include many exhibits similar to those that were on display at the downtown location years ago. The museum’s collection boasts several pieces tied to aircraft development at Bell, including the Bell X-22, one of the last pieces of research aircraft developed in Wheatfield for the U.S. Navy.
“We hope that our presence will be an asset,” Neeson said of the new museum site.
NFTA officials are hoping so as well. NFTA spokesman Doug Hartmayer said the lease agreement, approved during a meeting of the agency’s board in November covers two years with two, one-year renewal options after the initial lease period expires. He said the agency has agreed to lease roughly two-thirds of the existing space inside the former passenger terminal for museum operations. The former facility has been empty since the new terminal opened in 2009.
“We’re very happy for a couple of reasons,” Hartmayer said. “It provides a use for part of the old terminal that’s aviation related and its specifically related in many areas to aviation items that were actually created and made right here at Bell (Aerospace), so you have that local flavor. You are able to showcase that aviation history that took place here in Niagara Falls.”