Friday, July 19, 2019

Reimaginations of the Erie Canal

A couple of weeks ago this column highlighted the importance of the Erie Canal to tourism and quality of life in the region while encouraging readers to take part the Reimagine the Erie Canal initiative. There were public listening sessions in Lockport and Brockport last week and the state’s Task Force was pleased with attendance and participation.

If you couldn’t make it to those hearings and have some ideas about how to improve and capitalize on the Canal be sure to send your comments to them, as I will. As someone who lives and works in canalside communities and spends a lot of time along the shores of the waterway, I have my own ideas on reimagining the Canal. Here are just a few of them:

Join the club.

The Adirondack 46ers is a community of men and women who have tackled all 46 high peaks in the Park. Membership is a badge of honor and something that many strive for and might never achieve. Whether or not they join the club (which has a roster of 11,000 hikers since 1918), every step along the way is special, from the people met to the wildlife encountered to the scenes seen. It’s an adventure.

Experiencing and completing the entire Canalway Trail should be celebrated the same way. The Trail is nowhere near as wild or taxing as the Adirondacks but, at nearly 400 miles in length, completing it is a major undertaking and a rewarding one at that: The well-groomed trail showcases so many wonderful communities and natural areas, showing off the people and places that make Upstate so unique.

A Canalway Trail Club in different variations (hike, bike) could prove to be quite popular and for those who don’t complete it in one week like 650 cyclists did last Sunday it will make for repeat, recurring business for the Canal economy. Like the ADK46ers, membership could be gleaned piecemeal, one stretch at a time.

Market as one.

Right now, there are state-produced websites and brochures that market the Canal as just the Canal. They are brief and don’t focus on the entire experience around the Erie Canal. Doing so is left to individual counties, cities, and towns.

For visitors sailing the system or cycling the trail that can make a full appreciation of the trip a little difficult and lacking. By having to visit dozens of websites and social media accounts -- if those communities even have them -- they will miss something interesting, for sure, and they won’t be aware of all the amenities along the way.  

The state needs to produce a large brochure, updated annually, and deeper websites that takes visitors along the entire length of the Canal and highlights the people, places, history and things to do in each community. The benefits afforded tourism could be huge.

Similar marketing models can be seen with the Niagara Wine Trail. Sure, there’s some competition (wouldn’t each winery like to sell more bottles than the next one?) but they all realize collaboration is more beneficial (making a day-long adventure out of wine tasting attracts far visitors to Niagara County than one establishment ever could).

Expand that mentality to the Canal. Rather than having villages compete against one another for the attention and dollars of tourists they will all benefit as one voice, especially with something as long and varied as the Canal. Those who a travelling aren’t here just for North Tonawanda or Rochester, they are here for the entire upstate territory.

Invest in canalside niceties.

Many people are surprised that the state gave control of the Canal system to the New York Power Authority a few years back. It’s odd that a power company is in charge of a piece of infrastructure, but there is some reward to be had.

NYPA is a public benefit corporation, a public entity that is run as a quasi-private enterprise. That means it has profits, profits that could be shared with Canal towns.  

NYPA has given out hundreds of millions to communities near Niagara Falls as a part of the Greenway funds associated with relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. A similar program could be introduced to Canal host communities. While the Canal is nowhere near as profitable as the Power Project (as a matter of fact, it doesn’t even turn a profit), power funds could be diverted into a “small” account.

Imagine if NYPA set aside $300,000 annually and towns and villages bid on grants to bring niceties specific to the Canal’s use to their port and bridge areas – benches, marketing signage, restrooms, wifi, power hook-ups for boats, etc. That would go a long ways in improving how the Canal and its communities are utilized.         

Do you have your own ideas on making the Canal better?

If so, drop a letter in the mail to the Reimagine the Erie Canal Task Force’s WNY co-chair, Bob Duffy, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, 150 State Street, Suite 400, Rochester, NY 14614.

Share your ideas. Let’s reimagine the Canal together.

From the 22 July 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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