Renewal sought for Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission

GAZETTE FILE PHOTOPaddlers fan out across the Erie Canal in Waterford during a June 2019 event.

Paddlers fan out across the Erie Canal in Waterford during a June 2019 event.

WATERFORD — With 11 months left before expiration of the federal authorization of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, two federal lawmakers made the case Thursday for its renewal.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said they’ve garnered bipartisan support from New York’s other federal representatives for their effort to renew the commission.

They’re confident the effort will draw support beyond the New York delegation, even amid the partisan red state/blue state divide, because many senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle have heritage corridors in their own states or districts, and would like to keep them going as they near their own sunset dates.

Gillibrand also noted that renewing the commission doesn’t cost anything. The actual federal money for a corridor is a matter separate from the authorization of its commission, and the Erie Canalway Corridor has received a new federal appropriation the last two times it was running out of money — $2 million each in 2017 and 2019.

Tonko, whose district includes the modern Erie Canal and relics of the original canal completed in 1825, said during a news conference Thursday that the heritage corridor’s role is twofold: It showcases the history of a public works project that proved transformational for the state and the young nation 200 years ago but also promotes its current use as a tourism and recreation asset.

“It is a bit of infrastructure that is revered,” Tonko said, and one that has helped define the region.

“We’re deepening the sense of place with this commission,” he said. “It allows people to best understand the richness of our history here in upstate New York and that sense of place is what this is all about.”

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor has its headquarters on Peebles Island in Waterford, near modern-day Lock E-2 and not far from the circa-1825 cut-stone locks that carried the original Erie Canal up the hill in Cohoes.

Historic heritage is part of its name and a key focus of its work, but the Corridor also works to boost modern upstate New York, said Barbara Blanchard, chairwoman of the commission.

“The commission works in a partnership arrangement with many other organizations to improve the quality of life in the communities along the canal system, and that kind of partnership arrangement really requires continuity of effort, which this legislation will provide,” she said during the virtual news conference.

The commission works with the National Park Service and multiple state agencies, Blanchard said, as well as with the 200 communities with 3 million residents in the corridor.

Seventy-five percent of the upstate population lives within 25 miles of the canal system, she noted.

Gillibrand said the commission was created in 2000 then extended in 2010 and 2015. The 2015 authorization is scheduled to sunset Sept. 30, 2021, and the goal now is to extend its life through September 2034. The commission’s funding must be renewed more frequently, but thus far it has been boosted each time it needed more money.

“Last year, Representative Tonko and I were able to increase the statutory funding and allow continued federal funding from the Department of the Interior to help sustain these important programs,” Gillibrand said.

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