Panel hopes to promote Mohawk riverfront projects

The Indians called it Te-non-an-at-che, the “river flowing through the mountains,” and as a gateway

The Indians called it Te-non-an-at-che, the “river flowing through the mountains,” and as a gateway to the west — whether you went by canoe or canal boat — the Mohawk River’s importance is unparalleled in American history.

While the Mohawk remains an important natural resource for New Yorkers, many communities living along the banks of the 140-mile long, west-to-east waterway struggle with how to best utilize the river and its shoreline.

In too many places along the river — from the powerful Cohoes Falls just a few hundred yards from where it empties into the Hudson, to just north of Rome where its headwaters come trickling out of the Tug Hill Plateau — the Mohawk is inaccessible. For U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat from Amsterdam, that’s bad business.

“If you look at the Mohawk, the Hudson and its tributaries, 85 percent of the people I represent live within 10 miles of water,” said Tonko, who serves the 21st Congressional District. “It’s a wonderful resource, and it behooves us to take this gift and preserve it, and utilize it in a way that expresses our sense of place and our quality of life. The Mohawk River is a great marketing tool and part of a formula that can help create more jobs.”

That’s the message Tonko is trying to spread across the state with his Mighty Waters Task Force, a group of around 15 people contributing recommendations to help Tonko find ways to more effectively use federal agencies and resources to benefit the region, and to stimulate local and regional interest in waterway projects and policies. Among the members are Union College President Stephen Ainlay, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway Director P. Thomas Carroll, the Beacon Institute’s John Cronin, Beth Sciumeca of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and Rocco Ferraro of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

Tonko will meet with that group and any other interested parties when he holds his second day-long forum at 8 a.m. Wednesday. . . The forum, “Mighty Waters: Defining Our Past, Directing our Future,” will be held at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy will offer a keynote address to kick off the event, which will then move to RPI’s Darrin Communications Center, where it will conclude at 4 p.m.

Tonko is focusing on waterways in the 21st District, which consists of much the Capital Region and all or parts of Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties. Included in that area is most of the Mohawk River, the Hudson River from the Albany area south to Ravena, and much of the Schoharie Creek.

“I think it’s very important to have a communitywide discussion among all of us, all of us that are stakeholders in the river,” said Tonko. “We have to plan what we want to do with our resources, and we have to do it soundly. We don’t want sprawl just popping up along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. We want to develop a policy that will encourage public and private-sector partnerships to best ensure we use the shoreline properly.”

getting organized

Tonko held his initial gathering in July of 2010 at Schenectady County Community College. More than 125 representatives from small businesses, recreation groups, state agencies, universities, cities and other groups interested in the future of waterfront development attended. It was at that meeting that Tonko named 15 people to serve on the Mighty Waters Task Force. One of those people was restaurateur Pat Popolizio, owner of the Waters Edge Lighthouse and the Waters Edge Marina in Glenville.

“One of the things we’re doing is putting together some procedures and policies that will streamline ways we can get the waterfront developed,” said Popolizio, who bought and renovated his restaurant and marina on the north bank of the Mohawk in 2005. “I took a big chance when I bought my place, and didn’t get any help from Metroplex or any of the other places. It was a lengthy and complicated process, and what we want to do is simplify the process to help people interested in developing the waterfront. We have a beautiful state here, and I think Paul and the people on this committee have been absolutely fantastic getting this task force going.”

Popolizio’s restaurant, with its multi-level outdoor patio seating, is one of the few places where people can enjoy the river without being in a boat. Jumpin’ Jack’s, an outdoor restaurant in Scotia with picnic tables on the river, is another Schenectady County site that takes advantage of its proximity to the Mohawk. Other businesses are the Glen Sanders Mansion restaurant in Scotia, the Riverstone Manor in Glenville, and the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction.

But for the most part, if the public wants access to the river, even if it’s only for the view, the only thing available to them is one of the many locks along the New York State Barge Canal. Out in the small towns of Montgomery and Fulton counties like Fonda, Fort Plain and Canajoharie, there is even less access to the water, since railroad tracks and the New York State Thruway tightly hug both sides of the river. There are some small public parks along the water, but within yards of the Thruway and its constant roar of traffic. And spring flooding typically results in those green spaces being under water.

“There isn’t a whole lot we can do,” said village of Canajoharie Mayor Francis Avery. “We have to work very hard to keep our little park presentable. We try to promote it with trees and flowers, but the river is constantly overflowing and washing out the flower beds. It deposits a lot of dirt when it recedes, so realistically you just can’t try and do too much with that area.”

heritage corridor

The Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission has helped several of the small municipalities along the river improve the quality of life by promoting tourism and writing grants for downtown improvements. But the state’s financial woes in the past few years have left the MVHCC with diminished funds, leaving much of the group’s work to volunteers.

Fred Miller of Niskayuna was the group’s chairman before resigning in July 2009 because of poor health.

“I think we had things heading in the right direction and then the economy started to go in the tank,” said Miller, who worked for General Dynamics at the Kesselring nuclear testing site in West Milton before retiring in 1992. “The Mohawk is a great natural resource and it also has historical value of quite some magnitude. But for years nobody ever addressed that as one of the ways to help the economy. Nobody was willing to take ownership of the Mohawk River for quite some time. You have to work with people and create partnerships with state and local governments for things to happen, and what [Tonko] is doing is a good idea.”

former alco site

Back in Schenectady, where the Thruway takes a wide arc away from the city and the railroad tracks don’t present much of a problem, there are some good options for development along the river. While industry, particularly the American Locomotive Company, has dominated the city’s shoreline for more then 100 years, the landscape is changing. The Galesi Group, one of the largest real estate developers in the northeast, has purchased the former ALCO site along Erie Boulevard and is busy tearing down many of the old buildings to make room for new ones.

“We’re proceeding with the demolition, and the next part of the process will be a feasibility study to see how we can make this land a great asset for the city of Schenectady,” said David Buicko, chief operating officer for the Galesi Group. “We’re anticipating a combination of residential and office or retail space, depending on the needs. We’re hoping it will have some kind of mixed use for the community that will improve the lifestyle experience of the people living there or working there.”

Buicko has been following Tonko’s Mighty Waters Task Force and is expecting to be at the RPI event this week.

“I’ve participated in some of the discussions as a panelist, and if it results in greater creativity to take advantage of one of the best natural assets in New York state, then I think it’s a good idea. Hopefully, Mr. Tonko’s work has created some real momentum, and we have to continue to be proactive to make it work. Sure, you have some issues with flooding that can stymie any kind of waterfront development, but there are places that are prime locations for development and the ALCO site is one of them.”

While Popolizio has watched his business flourish on the banks of the Mohawk, he was never completely satisfied with the view. On the Schenectady side of the river, the south bank, Dimension Fabricators, a steel company, created something of an eyesore for his customers. When that company relocated to another site in Glenville, Popolizio decided to make an investment and purchase the shoreline that was once dominated by the steel company.

“Right now I have the land from bridge to bridge on the other shore,” said Popolizio, referring to Freemans Bridge and the railroad bridge. “It’s about 1,000 feet of waterfront property and I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with it. I liked Dimension, the company and the people, but staring at cranes and some of their other heavy equipment isn’t what I envisioned for the future.

“I think we have enough industry on the water, so what I’m thinking about is doing something with it that the public can use,” said Popolizio. “Maybe townhouses, a hotel, or maybe even the marina we have here now right out in front. Something that will help people enjoy the water.”

“I call the river a tiebreaker,” said Tonko, who was the keynote speaker at the Mohawk Watershed Symposium at Union College three months ago. “There are many communities out there looking for corporations and for workers to invest in them, but they don’t have a Mohawk River in their area. The history of the Mohawk should be our inspiration, and it’s our responsibility to take advantage of that great natural resource. We have to look at our strengths, like the waterways, and take advantage of them.”

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply