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State Seeks New Ideas For Erie Canal

Ideas for potential uses for the Erie Canal are posted up during a public input session in Schenectady.
Lucas Willard
Ideas for potential uses for the Erie Canal are posted up during a public input session in Schenectady.

Construction on the Erie Canal began 202 years ago. The waterway across upstate New York changed American history. Now, a state task force is asking residents how they’d like to see the canal used in the next 100 years.

At a packed public meeting in Schenectady Thursday night hosted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, dozens of curious Capital Region residents discussed, brainstormed, and offered their ideas for how they’d like to see the Erie Canal utilized.

It was the first of several public input sessions to be held across the state as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reimagine the Canals initiative.

The Rockefeller Institute’s Laura Schultz said the state is open to ideas big and small.

“We ideally would love things that we could start implementing in the next year, or three years, five years from now, that the Canal Corporation could execute quickly. And we’re looking here for ideas that Schenectady and the Capital Region is interested in. But we are not going to turn big ideas now and how the public are going to interact with it,” said Schultz.

Before attendees broke into groups to brainstorm – in categories that included public arts, open space and the environment, and more — a video was shown to highlight the finalists of a grant competition last year that sought new ideas for communities along the Erie Canal.

“There were 145 entries from seven countries. They proved that something old could be become new again…”

Two projects were selected to receive seed money to help become a reality. One, the Erie Armada. Boosted by the craft beverage industry in upstate New York, the armada connects communities through a boat race – with human-powered, homemade crafts.

Another finalist, Canalside Pocket Neighborhoods – an initiative to plan multi-use buildings and housing with direct access to the Erie Canal. The first project is envisioned for the village of Canastota in Madison County.

Speaking at the podium, former New York State DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, co-chair of the Reimagine the Canals Task Force, spoke about his experience riding his bicycle across New York along the Erie Canal in 2015, his last year as DEC Commissioner.

“You got into the communities, you got to talk to the folks, and in virtually every one, there was a warm welcome to everybody that was passing through, in part because they appreciated the traffic, they appreciated the attention, they appreciated the tourism dollars that they got. But they were terrific, welcoming communities from one end to the other,” said Martens.

Martens said commercial traffic has all but disappeared on the canal.

But the state sees its canals as opportunities for tourism, economic, and community development.

Former Schenectady Mayor and current Director of the New York State Canal Corporation Brian Stratton points just down the road from Schenectady County Community College, where Thursday’s meeting was held, to the multi-million dollar Rivers Casino and Mohawk Harbor, built on the site of the former ALCO factory that sat empty for decades.

“I mean that is a major project along the canal. Probably the largest thing that is happening along the entire Erie Canal system from Albany to Buffalo,” said Stratton.

With a changing climate, Stratton said the Canal Corporation is looking for future uses that recognize the potential for flooding, ice jams, and other changes to the environment.

Four additional sessions will be held across New York this month, in Lockport, Brockport, Syracuse, and Utica.

For more information visit: http://www.canals.ny.gov/reimagine/home.html

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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