Many New Yorkers will tell you the State Canal system is dead. They look at it as a historical remnant, thinking its ship sailed in the late 1800s when rail lines took over as the preeminent economy-driving infrastructure.
I beg to differ.
The Erie Canal and its connecting waterways are still vital to this day.
While it’s rare that you’ll see barges moving heavy equipment to manufacturers or grains from farmers, the Canal creates value in other ways, some measurable (tourism), others immeasurable (recreation and health).
This week perfectly highlights that.
If you thought you saw a lot of cyclists on the Canalway Trail on Sunday you’re weren’t seeing things. That was Day One of the 21st annual Cycle the Erie Canal bike tour which covers 8 days and all 400 miles of the Canal. In total, 650 cyclists made their way across Erie, Niagara and Orleans Counties on the Sabbath before spending the night in Albion.
I encountered 65 of them at various points on the trail while taking my two-year-old son on one of his 4 mile stroller rides on it. Being ambassadors of goodwill for Gasport we made sure to offer our cheery welcome to every one of them. By doing so, we literally bid well to one-out-of-every-ten participants of the event.
I’m glad we did -- and I hope others in every port town did the same – because every little bit helps with tourism.
The number of accents on the return salutations was overwhelming. There were men and women who sounded as if they were from the South, Texas, the Midwest, the North Central states, Ontario, Boston, New York City and more. These were people who don’t hail from WNY but were here enjoying this beautiful public asset and briefly seeing the wonderful places and people along it.
We can only hope they return in other fashions, perhaps on a road trip, perhaps on a float trip, staying at local beds and breakfasts and rental properties and spending their money at local restaurants and shops.
When they do that, their impact is huge. A 2017 study found that visitors and residents alike accounted for $1.3 billion in spending associated with Canal events, tours and rentals. Vacationers alone spent 60 percent of that total.
As we saw last spring when Geraldo Rivera sailed it, you never know who you might encounter on the Canal.
Hopefully, you see a neighbor there, and that’s where the other event of this week comes into play -- the 29th annual Erie Canal Fishing Derby.
The Derby is one of the most impactful family-friendly events to take place on the waterway. Driven by the chance to win $20,000 in total prizes and spend quality time together on or along the water, it has proven to be incredibly popular every year, across multiple generations. Parents who were once themselves young kids wetting their lines during the contest now share the event with their children.
The Derby creates a lifetime -- no, many lifetimes – of love for what the Canal offers.
And, the Canal offers a lot – not only fishing and cycling, but hiking, jogging, birdwatching, powerboating, kayaking, canoeing, history and more.
The quality of life that it affords those who live near it is extraordinary. As Aristotle so succinctly said more than 2,300 years ago: “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous”. Nature can’t get much more accessible than this: 400 miles of water bordered by a public trail.
We need to capitalize on that, whether it’s for economic reasons like tourism or for social reasons like public health and recreation.
Luckily, the state is headed in that direction.
In May, Governor Cuomo announced an initiative to examine how the Canal can be reimagined for the 21st century in an effort to boost local economies and inspire new opportunities for tourism and recreation. In doing so, he created the Reimagine the Canal Task Force. It is made up of a unique group of souls representing diverse groups and communities invested in and impacted by the Canal.
They will be holding multiple public input sessions this summer. The first round takes place next week with local meetings happening from 6 to 8 p.m on July 15th in Lockport at the Challenger Learning Center and July 16th in Brockport at Cooper Hall on the College campus.
If you can’t make it submit your comments and ideas to the Task Force’s WNY co-chair, former lieutenant governor Bob Duffy who is now CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. You can mail your correspondence to him at the Chamber: 150 State Street, Suite 400, Rochester, NY 14614.
If you live in a Canal community and value what the Canal means or could mean to your canalside town -- and all of Upstate -- please take the time to reach out to the Task Force. There’s so much value, so much potential in the Canal. Let’s make sure we all take advantage of that.
From the 10 July 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News