SCHENECTADY — The Erie Canal and its offshoots were built in the 1820s for barges carrying commercial cargoes, and it will never see that use again.
But the canals aren’t going anywhere, and more than 100 people turned out on Thursday to ponder what their future could hold.
People from Stockade neighborhood residents to boat owners and small-town development boosters turned out at SUNY Schenectady County Community College for the first meeting of the Reimagine the Canal Task Force, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in May to come up with new ideas for future of the 524-mile state canal system.
Brian U. Stratton, the former Schenectady mayor who is now director of the state Canal Corp., said the goal of the task force is “to see how it can be revitalized and redeveloped to be more of an economic development force.”
In the early 19th century, the canals were at the heart of many community’s life: Stables boarded the horses and mules that pulled the barges; boarding houses catered to the boatmen; and warehouses stored goods being transported by canal to market. But railroads and then trucks came to dominate commercial transportation, and then the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1960s provided a way for heavy oceangoing ships to get further inland, faster.
“Merchant traffic has all but disappeared from the canal, so it’s a very different context from when it was first constructed,” said Joe Martens, a former state commissioner of environmental conservation and the task force chairman for the Mohawk Valley Region.
The communities along the 195-year-old canal running from Buffalo to Albany and north to Lake Champlain today are either connected or in the process of being connected by off-road recreation trails that many people see as the economic future — bicycle tourism, and accommodations for cyclists in many of the former industrial towns along the canals.
“The tour was an eye-opener for me,” Martens said of a Buffalo-to-Albany bike tour he took in 2015 as he ended his tenure at the Department of Environmental Conservation. “You got into the communities, you talked to the folks, they were incredibly welcoming.”
Those who attended what was the first in a series of meetings being held along the Erie Canal corridor heard brief presentations on the plans, and then broke up into focus groups to brainstorm such topics as tourism and events, parks and open space, nature and flooding issues, arts and culture and recreation.
The Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany is coordinating the task force’s work, with the goal of presenting a report to Cuomo in October so that ideas for the canal could potentially make it into the next state budget.
Other meetings will be July 15 in Lockport, July 16 in Brockport, July 23 in Syracuse and July 30 in Utica.
“People in different places may have different priorities,” said Steven Gosset, a spokesman for the state Power Authority, which oversees the Canal Corp. “There will be a synthesis of what comes out of these meetings, and we will get recommendations to the governor in October.”
The canal system is already getting new attention, if indirectly, from the $200 million Empire State Trail plan, which is filling gaps in the existing bike trail system along the canals. But the canal’s mechanical parts — the dozens of locks that are vital to its operation — are now in many cases a century old, and used almost entirely for recreational boating.
“As it gets closer to the third century of operation, how do we optimize it?” Gosset said. “The consensus is there’s a lot of untapped potential.”
Schenectady has played up the canal’s potential, with the Mohawk Harbor development on Erie Boulevard, which includes a marina.
“The canal means so many things to so many different people,” Martens said. “It’s a travel corridor, it’s a recreational corridor, it’s a historic corridor. One of the things that impressed me was all the history.”
The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor also works to promote the history of the communities along the canal, most of which are at least 200 years old.
“We think of it as a 500-mile linear park,” said Bob Radliff, executive director of the National Heritage Corridor and a member of the 32-member task force.