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A great new Great Falls

Monday, December 09, 2002


Herald News

PATERSON - The school children walk in neat rows behind their teacher on a field trip. A couple walks hand in hand up a path toward the Colt Gun Mill. A woman pushes an elderly person in a wheelchair down the ramp to the boat dock on the Passaic River. Photographers crouch to take pictures of the roaring Great Falls.

It's all happening in miniature in a scale model of the Great Falls and Allied Textile Printing site on display now at City Hall.

Sixth Ward City Councilman Thomas Rooney built the model to demonstrate what could be done to create a national park and tourist attraction in the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District, he said.

"We don't have to build a chasm, we don't have to build the falls. We don't have to make believe anything. We just have to put in a few ramps and paths," Rooney said last week as he gave a tour of the model of the 3.5-acre site. "That's my real ultimate goal with this whole thing - to have people from all over saying, 'You have to go to Paterson to see this.'"

It's a vision that has animated the staid, veteran city councilman who is better known for vigorously opposing tax increases and scrutinizing budgets than for vacation daydreams.

He wears dark suits. He forbids crass language in the City Council chambers. He produces charts and graphs to explain the city's bonding capacity and percentage of taxable properties.

But two years ago, he took a walk through Overlook Park, behind the falls and to the wooded area between the falls and the ATP site on Van Houten Street.

"All you hear is the sound of the river and the birds," he said. "When they come in here, they're going into a different world."

That walk, which Rooney sometimes refers to as "magical," changed his priorities.

He is still a devout fiscal conservative. But his main issue is preserving the area around the falls and making it somewhere worth visiting - and he is willing to spend city money to do it.

Rooney stresses that his model is just one example of what could be done to combine a history exhibit with recreation on the site.

"We need to get all the ideas that we can from as many people as we can," he said.

In 2001, Rooney presented a plan for the Great Falls area at a City Council meeting. It consisted of a written report and computer-generated illustrations of a walkway along the Passaic River, a pedestrian bridge into the chasm of the falls and a re-created Native American village in the area behind Van Houten Street known as the Allied Textile Printing, or ATP, site.

The idea got people excited. It touched their imagination and made many people in the city believe something could be done to attract visitors to the falls, capitalize on the city's industrial and natural history, and create a showpiece in Paterson.

But Rooney and other supporters of the idea found it difficult to visualize a museum and visitors center in what was then the overgrown ATP site, an area below the falls composed of a homeless encampment and a series of fallen down buildings.

"You can have pictures, but it's not the real thing. You can't explain it to people," Rooney said last week. "If you have the three dimensional, you can see what it is. Just make it full size."

Last year, Rooney pitched his plan for the area to Passaic County Vision 20/20, a civic group that tries to boost positive recognition of the county. Then-President Pat DiIanni suggested Rooney build a model to show what he was talking about.

"I had no idea what to do or how to go about it," Rooney confessed. But he bought a book on models and watched a video on how to build them, he said.

"I had some ideas and I figured, maybe I can do this."

So began a 10-month labor of love.

The councilman began working on the model in February. He finished last month.

In the intervening months he made countless trips to a hobbyist store in Cedar Grove, turned his dining room into a workshop and spent hours studying engineering department topographical maps.

He learned to use a glue gun, learned to dip tiny trees in green paint and place them on tiny hillsides, and plotted out what he considers the best foot traffic pattern for the visitors center, Colt museum and boat ramp.

He also got to know the little figures - close to 200 - who stroll happily through the site.

"Some days, I'd work on it quite a bit. It depended on how much time I had. Some days, I wanted to back away and just think about it. It takes time," he said.

When the model was completed last month, Rooney sat beside it looking into the ATP site area where the Colt Gun Mill is restored into a living museum, where tourists begin at a visitors center and gift shop, where boat rides glide down the Passaic River.

He chuckled.

"Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this, but when I was looking at it, looking and looking at these people, I thought to myself, now why aren't they moving?"

He named some of the figures.

Sister Mary Katherine from St. Aloysius School in Philadelphia leads her class down one walkway.

A senior citizen club from Greenwich, Conn., strolls toward the falls. The Albany, N.Y., camera club takes pictures of the chasm.

"There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come," Rooney said. "Maybe now the mood is right. They want something good to happen in the city. This is doable."

The model has gotten a lot of attention. It was on display at a Vision 20/20 event at the Brownstone last month, where mayors of other towns in the county asked if they 'tream of people peered through the glass case to look at what the area could become.

On Wednesday, Rooney is taking the model to a meeting of the Greater Paterson Chamber of Commerce to make his pitch for developing the site.

The chamber's board of directors will then vote on whether they want to endorse the plan and help the city realize it, President James Dykes said.

The transformation of the ATP site from eyesore to potential national park and tourist attraction is already underway.

During the summer, weeds and brush were cleared. Experts have been surveying the area to identify historically valuable buildings. Demolition of nonhistoric buildings begins in February, Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres said Thursday.

After that, engineers can go to work on a walkway along the Passaic River, from the falls to the bottom of the ATP site, Torres said. The city already has state funding to pay for the river walk, he said. He's looking for more money to pay for a study to determine whether an amphitheater could be built on the slope near the hydro-electric plant on McBride Avenue and looking for ways to rebuild the Colt Gun Mill, making it a museum that could house the city's Colt collection.

Torres said he is impressed with Rooney's model and committed to making it a reality.

"I commend him for his vision, which is really consistent with what a lot of people want to see at the falls. I really see it being a very feasible plan," he said. "I think what Tom has demonstrated is a labor of love. It reflects Tom's passion for the city. He knows it, he's lived it. Look, Alexander Hamilton had a vision, and now Councilman Rooney has a vision as well."

Copyright © 2002 North Jersey Media Group Inc

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