Erie Canal: going with the cash-flow

| January 07, 2004
Hopes ply the Erie Canal --- and navigate the bureaucracies.
Hopes ply the Erie Canal --- and navigate the bureaucracies.
- Illustration by Jorge Silva

Just a few years back, it seemed the Erie Canal was going through its most boosterish phase since 1825, the year the pioneering waterway opened. The old canal ditty that advised "Low bridge, everybody down" was rewritten as "High fives, everything's looking up."

            Now some booster bubbles have burst. But developers' hopes still sail these waters --- via, for example, "public-private partnerships" under the wing of local and state governments.

            At the helm is the New York State Canal Corporation, an arm of the Thruway Authority. The Canal Corporation is responsible for operating and maintaining a 500-plus-mile interconnected system comprised of the Erie, Oswego, Seneca-Cayuga, and Champlain canals. As a self-styled "development partner," the Canal Corporation specializes in "marketing key land parcels, fostering investment in Canal Harbors, and promoting the system's economic potential to the business community."

            On its website, the corporation has chronicled recent "success stories" associated with its projects. The newer stories include the town of Greece's commercial development just off the canal, and Macedon's Mid-Lakes Navigation Company, which operates canalside cruise services and boat slips. (Rochesterians can watch the trends at work along the Genesee River near downtown, where a new "Erie Canal port" --- replete with new breakwalls and dockage --- will eventually sport new retail and residential construction.)

            But with governmental budgets melting down, things have hit a snag --- and some bureaucratic mysteries are afloat.

The Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor Planning Commission has recently raised some eyebrows, for sure.

            This state-funded commission was created in spring 2000 to promote economic development and tourism along the canal between Buffalo and the Montezuma area near Syracuse. The Heritage Corridor includes not just the waterway and adjacent lands, but all the communities of Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, and Wayne counties.

            In August 2003, the commission released a draft management plan designed to boost the regional economy and increase "appreciation of natural and cultural heritage resources." The 125-page draft, prepared with the commission's budget of $450,000, reflects three years of meetings with community groups, elected officials, and the public. (See the draft at http://eriecanalheritage.com.) As posted, though, the plan is not complete. And it's not certain the final edit will be done. For one thing, the commission ran out of money in October, which had the predictable result: Staffers lost their jobs, and the office --- in borrowed space at the Landmark Society of Western New York headquarters in downtown Rochester --- closed its doors.

            "The commission was originally appointed for a three-year period of time," says Wayne County senior planner and commission member Peg Churchill. The state, she says, did grant a one-year extension so the plan could be completed by spring 2004. But funding to go along with the extension isn't yet in the pipeline. Churchill says she "anticipates" that $50,000 will come through soon.

            Churchill also is upbeat about what various stakeholders have already accomplished, like visible canalside improvements in the Wayne County ports of Palmyra, Newark, and Lyons.

            Some observers say the hold-up has to do with relations between state legislators and Governor George Pataki. "We've been funded primarily by member items," says now-laid-off commission staffer Bill Condo. ("Member items" are budget items that are channeled through individual legislators to projects in their districts.)

            Condo says the problems "really started to happen last March," when the state budget process went into annual gridlock. He promises to continue his canal-related work as a private consultant.

Now a new planning body has come to town. And it's covering much of the ground the Western Erie Canal commission and its counterparts in other regions already staked out.

            This is the federal Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission, created by Congress in December 2000. (You're forgiven if you're not able to keep the "Western" and "National" commissions separate in your head. But in fact, the two are distinct --- the federal mandate covers 220 municipalities along the entire Erie Canal system.) Shepherded by US Representative Jim Walsh, this commission has been getting outlays of roughly a half-million dollars per year. On October 30, 2003, Walsh, along with US Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, announced the commission would get $600,000 for 2004.

            In recent weeks, the federal commission has been holding public information meetings across the state. One such meeting will take place Thursday, January 15, 7 p.m., at Rochester City Hall, 30 Church Street, says Albany-based Marcia Kees, the federal commission's director of planning and project management. She says a meeting held in Lockport in December drew some Rochesterians.

            "We've hired a consultant team," says Kees. "We're meeting people, talking to people. We don't want to want duplicate past efforts." She describes "cooperative efforts" with the New York State Canal Corporation, the Canal Society of New York State, and other groups. And the commission, she says, is "in the process of discussion" with Western Erie Canal commission members.

            Pittsford resident Thomas Grasso is in a good position to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth: He's a member of the federal and state commissions, and he's also the president of the Canal Society of New York State. He acknowledges there are cooperative agreements in process. "There's no intent to re-invent the wheel," he adds. But he does express regret over the Western Erie Canal commission's current predicament. "It's not very good when something like that happens," he says.

            "I'm as much in the dark as anyone else [regarding] the state group and the funding," says Grasso. But he speculates problems could have arisen from personnel changes within the state Canal Corporation: specifically, the lack of a permanent director for much of this year. (There also was a major scandal involving advertising for bids for private development along the canal.)

            "The shop has been at a standstill" until recently, says Grasso. "Things will happen, but right now it's a slow period... The canal has been a political football for a long time, probably since it started."

            Grasso also mentions a project the Canal Society is pursuing. With the help of funds secured through Rep. Walsh, he says, the group purchased an 1890s tavern-hotel at an old canal lock next to the Thruway near Montezuma. Plans call for creating a visitor center and interpretive trails --- and a unique on-off ramp for access from the Thruway.

But Grasso is concerned about canal-oriented development in the larger sense.

            Like others, he notes that the Erie Canal towpath recreational trail has been a great success, attracting bicyclists and walkers in large numbers. (The trail is open, and paved in places, between Lockport and Palmyra, as well as on sections further east. Plans call for completion of the whole trail, essentially from Albany to Buffalo, within a few years.) "But if all that happens is a trail, forget it," he says.

            What's needed, Grasso says, is a "multi-faceted" development strategy to help businesses like restaurants get established. "Festivals, concerts, all that kind of thing helps," he says. "It depends on marketing, not only nationwide and abroad, but also locally. My hunch is there a lot of people in Olean and Dansville who don't know the canal is alive and well."

            Condo echoes much of this. He says the Western Erie Canal commission has been working toward the "revitalization of town centers" and "cooperative tourist arrangements with Canada." The key, he says, is focusing on economic development --- a component he says the federal commission, as part of the National Park Service, is not equipped to address.

            Canal-watchers are focusing on longer-term enhancements, too. For example, says Peg Churchill, a planned Amtrak rail stop in the village of Lyons could hold possibilities for intermodal connections between the Albany-Buffalo canal corridor and the Finger Lanes. And, says Condo, modest additions along the recreational trail --- like campsites for longer-distance bikers and hikers --- could spread rewards to nearby settlements.

            But money is crucial, as always. Condo boils it down to a question that could apply to any number of commissions or initiatives: "Is this another Don Quixote exercise, or is it serious?"

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