Foss: How to reimagine the Erie Canal?

Task force brainstorms new uses for the 195-year-old waterway
Discussion groups brainstorm about improving the Erie Canal in the Van Curler Room at SCCC, July 11, 2019.
Discussion groups brainstorm about improving the Erie Canal in the Van Curler Room at SCCC, July 11, 2019.

Categories: Opinion

Three summers ago, my husband and I biked the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Amsterdam. 

We traveled though upstate communities big and small, immersed ourselves in beautiful scenery and learned a lot about the canal’s role in transforming New York into an economic powerhouse. 

It was a rich and rewarding experience, but as the trip wore on, a mystery emerged: Why weren’t more people using the trail? 

We had expected our trip to bring us into contact with all sorts of people, but most of our days passed fairly quietly. Unless we were passing through a city or town, encounters with cyclists and pedestrians were few and far between. 

Our conclusion: The Erie Canalway Trail is a great amenity — but one that’s sadly underused. The canal ought to be a major tourist attraction, given its historical significance and myriad recreation opportunities. 

But it isn’t. 

That could change, though. 

A state task force appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has embarked on an effort to reimagine the canal system—to come up with new uses for the 195-year-old waterway. 

Earlier this month, the task force held a public meeting in Schenectady to brainstorm ideas for the canal—one of five such meetings held in different upstate communities during July. The final meeting, in Utica, is scheduled for July 30. 

It’s a promising effort, one that recognizes the Erie Canal’s potential to boost economic development upstate while also acknowledging that the state’s vast canal system will never be the hub of commercial activity it once was. 

Which raises the question: What can it be? 

And how can we get more people to appreciate it and use it, and more upstate communities to benefit from it? 

Some communities see more benefits from the Erie Canal than others. 

Take Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester with approximately 29,000 residents.

Pittsford was one of our more pleasant stops, with a pretty little park where we could set down our bikes, buy gelato from a shop right on the water and also walk to local restaurants. 

If we spent more money in Pittsford than some of the other towns we stopped in, it’s probably because there were more places to spend our money. 

Communities interested in maximizing the canal’s potential should look for ways to encourage small-scale development on or near the trail. 

The activity in Pittsford was a welcome change from the sleepiness we observed in other communities, and it might provide a model for other towns to emulate. 

Of course, one community that’s well aware of the canal’s potential is Schenectady, where people now have the opportunity to live, work and play along a stretch of waterfront that just a few years ago was mostly inaccessible to the public. 

The new Mohawk Harbor development includes luxury apartments and a casino, but it also features a marina, which opens up the river to boaters. It also hosts a popular summer concert series, now in its second year, and provides dining and shopping options. And it links to the Erie Canalway Trail, making it easy for cyclists to access. 

Schenectady’s success in opening up its waterfront is something to celebrate, and build upon. 

Arts programming might be another way to get more people to use the canal. 

In June, the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail and CREATE Community Studios hosted Color the Canal, a new event that invited the public to decorate the Erie Canalway Trail with art. The occasion was Cycle the Erie Canal, an organized bike ride that brings hundreds through Schenectady each year. 

I’d like to see more events of this nature—family-friendly festivals and projects that can bring people who aren’t cyclists or boaters to the trail. 

As to what will emerge from state’s effort to reimagine the Erie Canal, that remains to be seen. 

But it’s an exciting project, one that instills hope for the canal’s future.

The Erie Canal has a lot of potential. 

The sooner we tap into that potential, the better. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.


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