For the second time in less than a year, state and local leaders Monday celebrated the opening of a Thruway rest area between westbound exits 28 and 29.
Rebranded as the Mohawk Valley Welcome Center, the former Living History Rest Area at Lock E-13 cost $4.5 million to expand. The original rest stop cost $7.5 million to build, bringing the project’s total cost to $12 million.
Plans for the rest area changed following the success of the Long Island Welcome Center, which opened in the fall after the first Lock E-13 rest stop opened in August, said Bill Finch, acting executive director of the state Thruway Authority. That center cost $20 million to build.
“It was [Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s] vision to have welcome centers, and out on Long Island we just saw how wonderful it worked for the communities … to be able to promote all the great things in New York state,” Finch said, “and it was the governor’s vision that got us here today.”
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke at the event, calling the Mohawk Valley the gateway to the Adirondacks in the north and to the Finger Lakes — “and all the wonderful wineries and craft breweries” — to the south. She left immediately after the ribbon was cut, not staying to take questions from the media.
“This is the place …. where we show off all that is great and fun about New York state, as well as an incredible history going back to the Revolutionary War,” she said. “It all happened here.”
The new facility is open year-round, instead of during the summer and through October, and puts more emphasis on promoting tourism, with digitized kiosks highlighting places to go in New York and New York trivia games for children and adults. It also now features an Erie Canal-themed playground, a walking path dotted with historical signs, a state troopers office, a revamped patio, electric vehicle charging stations, solar panels on the roof, a motorcycle shelter and two pet relief stations. It continues to offer New York-made products under the Taste NY banner.
“We started off with a Taste NY center and it was open part of the day, part of the year,” Finch said. “This is going to be a year-round operation with a state police presence, electric vehicle charging station and a lot of amenities. … I think it just highlights all of the great things that are here in the Mohawk Valley a lot more than we were able to do with the other facility.”
Finch wouldn’t answer the question of whether it would have cost less to incorporate the new features into the rest stop’s original design.
“I couldn’t answer that hypothetical right now, but what I can tell you is that we created this strategic investment because of what we learned on Long Island,” he said. “The governor’s vision is to promote tourism, and the more we promote tourism, the more New Yorkers we can employ.”
Finch emphasized the latest project’s investment in renewable energy — which includes the solar panels, electric-car charging stations and a walking path made from recycled tires.
“We really greened up the facility, made it a lot more modern, and more interactive so that people can come here and realize the incredible importance of the Mohawk Valley,” he said, “because without the Mohawk Valley, we wouldn’t have the United States as we know it today.”
Jennifer Givner, a Thruway Authority spokeswoman, said 80 percent of the original building remains intact, “so most of that money went into these amenities that are outside to improve the facility.”
The original project was funded using toll revenue, while the $4.5 million expansion was funded in the state budget, she said.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Finch thanked state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and state Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, for ensuring the funds were in the budget. He said they could not attend because they were in session, which wraps up next week. Both legislators, while supportive of the idea for a regional welcome center, have been critical of the project’s execution.
Brian Stratton, director of the state Canal Corp., noted that the Erie Canal’s bicentennial is this year, with crews breaking ground in Rome “200 years ago next month.”
“Today’s Erie Canal is fun, beautiful and dynamic, and it is a tourism economic engine generating some 400 million dollars of tourism spending along the canal and along the Canalway Trail every year,” he said.
Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said the new center encourages people traveling through to “stop and appreciate all the things I knew of and loved.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of positives in this area,” he said. “I really believe that this facility helps us put our best foot forward.”
Walking into the welcome center, all around an open room you see brightly lit screens highlighting tourism and history. On the left are glass cases filled with historical artifacts — a rusted “hop tester,” a six-pronged farming tool, used circa 1880-1910 and donated by the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown; tree fossils taken from the Gilboa Dam dating back 380 million years; and a Willie Mays 600th home run commemorative bat made in Dolgeville in 1969.
Straight ahead there’s a Taste NY cafe. Cody Brown of Palatine Cheese stands behind the counter offering samples of lactose- and gluten-free cheese made nearby in Nelliston. Coffee from Capital City Coffee Roasters in Albany brews behind him.
“I think it’s great,” Brown said. “It’s gonna get our name out there. … Our numbers are on the cheese packet, too, so if they like it, they can give us a call.”
The cheese is one of several local products sold in the center’s vending machines, which are stocked by developmentally disabled clients of Amsterdam-based Liberty ARC through a partnership that began with the original center’s opening in August. There are seven Liberty ARC workers, who also make the sandwiches found in one of two machines and offer free samples to visitors.
Jennifer Saunders, the organization’s chief executive officer, noted that the job-training opportunity was seasonal and is now year-round.
“Our individuals love interfacing with the public, so this job let’s them meet and greet with hundreds of people, and they love it,” she said.