Saratoga County

Proposed visitors center first step toward Upper Hudson economic boost

Places like Schuylerville that line the banks of the upper Hudson River have declined in industry an
A regional visitors center will be built at Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville, shown here on the banks of the Hudson River.
A regional visitors center will be built at Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville, shown here on the banks of the Hudson River.

Places like Schuylerville that line the banks of the upper Hudson River have declined in industry and population over the past half-century, while central Saratoga County has boomed.

Local leaders and the state and federal governments are betting that history-oriented tourism could provide a new spark for communities like Schuylerville, Greenwich and Mechanicville.

Ground will be broken soon to turn a vacant lot next to Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville into a regional visitors center.

That will be a major step forward for a vision of turning a 60-mile stretch of the upper Hudson Valley into a visitor magnate, geared to people who love river scenery, recreational activities, and history.

“We anticipate a pretty big economic impact,” said Saratoga Town Supervisor Thomas Wood, whose town includes the riverfront village.

The center is the work of the Historic Hudson-Hoosic Partnership, a partnership of the National Park Service, state agencies, local communities and private organizations looking to take advantage of international growth trends in outdoor recreation and heritage tourism.

“It should bring new people into existing businesses,” said Wood, who is part of the partnership.

The Champlain Canal Region Gateway Visitors Center would give the 10-year-old partnership a physical presence for the first time.

The goal is to open the center in 2017.

The site, where the town of Saratoga town hall once stood on Route 29 about two stones’ throws from the Hudson River, is central in the region the partnership will serve.

It will be adjacent to a section of the Champlain Canal trail, a bicycle trail system that is planned to run from Waterford to Whitehall.

Partnership Chairman Thomas Richardson, who is the Saratoga County supervisor representing Mechanicville, believes communities throughout the region will benefit.

“A couple of hundred thousand people float around Route 4 looking for the battlefield, and this will help direct them to historic sites, to places to stay, to places to eat, to gasoline, to all the things that people want,” Richardson said.

Cleanup a factor

A key factor has been the multi-year $1 billion cleanup of PCB contamination by General Electric, said Joe Finan, the partnership’s director of special projects.

“I think we have great potential, now that the river is clean, to market it as a world-class waterway,” said Finan, who retired last year as superintendent of the battlefield national park.

The partnership was created by the state Legislature in 2006, and has been seriously working on the visitors center concept since 2010.

Money, though, has always been a problem, since the organization has no power to impose fees or taxes.

Others, however, have been money into its vision.

In 2015, the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency agreed to pay $130,000 for the design of the visitors’ center. The work was done by Saratoga Associates of Saratoga Springs.

Also last year, Saratoga County supervisors agreed to loan the partnership $200,000 to provide working capital until reimbursement-based state grants are delivered.

The pending grants include ones from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, $283,000; the state Canal Corp., $191,000; and a $200,000 legislative grant arranged by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake.

There is also a $350,000 grant from Lakes to Locks Passage, to be used for exhibit and signage costs.

Lakes to Locks is a non-profit organization with federal and state funding that promotes historic tourism in the region between Troy and the Canadian border. It combined the former Lake Champlain and Champlain Canal scenic byway programs.

“The visitor center is part of the larger interpretive plan of Lakes to Locks,” said Drew Alberti, its program manager.

Lakes to Locks wants four visitor centers along the 212-mile corridor, including Schuylerville’s, each focusing on local attractions.

Central location

The Schuylerville site is attractive because of its central location between Saratoga and Washington counties, and because of a high traffic volume, he said.

About 9,000 vehicles per day cross the Hudson between Schuylerville and Greenwich, according to state Department of Transportation figures. It is a link between the Saratoga region and southwestern Vermont.

As proposed, the visitor center will cost $1.3 million, though Richardson hopes donations and volunteer labor will lower the cost. The design resembles that of the historic Philip Schuyler House on Route 4, less than a half-mile away by bike path.

Timber is coming from Saratoga County forest properties, and Timber Framers Guild, which is holding a conference in Saratoga Springs in September, has agreed to donate labor and expertise.

Finan said the idea of Schuylerville as a central location for river-centered tourism has been around at least since 1992, when a county study identified it.

In 2003, the National Park Service became interested after realizing visitors coming from the north need help finding the park service sites around Schuylerville. The Revolutionary War battlefield is about seven miles south of the village, but there are several battle-related sites in and around Schuylerville and the adjoining village of Victory.

But the region has more history than that, Finan noted, as well as scenic beauty.

“This is really a world-class waterway destination,” he said.

“You can go to the visitor center and get oriented to whatever you’re interested in,” Finan said. “You could be interested in looking at the Industrial Revolution, it could be Native American history, or it could the French and Indian War,”

According to Alberti, efforts like the partnership and Lakes to Locks don’t focus on developing the “heads in beds” tourism facilities like hotels, but on appealing to smaller groups who might spend part of a day.

“Our primary focus is on small groups, 10-15 people, and particularly the individual traveler,” Alberti said.

Lakes to Locks has its primary office in Crown Point and a satellite office at Saratoga Town Hall. It may move its local office to the new visitors center, all the involved parties said.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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