By Art Clayman
For The Daily Gazette
I am a longtime resident who lives close to Central Park and visits it frequently, as well as a member of the Upper Union Neighborhood Association.
I am also a former program director for ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse.
These two organizations are part of a coalition that has proposed an exciting new use for the Central Park Casino and asked the city of Schenectady for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to help make it happen.
I remember when, 20 years ago, the city invested $350,000 in the then-vacant Casino to prepare it for use as a restaurant.
That was great while it lasted.(I had some lovely breakfasts inside the place, as well as outside on the back patio overlooking picturesque Iroquois Lake.)
But it only lasted a few years before the city could no longer attract a vendor and the Casino was vacant once again.
And it has remained that way ever since — vacant, that is, except for the trespassers and vandals who have trashed the inside and are starting to work on the outside.
That’s what happens to buildings, even attractive ones in the middle of a public park, when they are left empty, unwatched and unmaintained.
The Casino deserves better, and so do the residents of Schenectady, who love the park, visit it often and pay taxes for its maintenance.
Other cities with such a structure would know what an asset it is and make sure it was kept up and put to a productive use.
An environmental education center, in a green building powered by solar panels, would be just such a use.
When I was on the board of ECOS, I tried to orient it more toward educating kids, and inner-city ones in particular.
As part of that effort, I started a program, first with the county youth bureau and then with the city school district, that over the years has brought environmental education and activities to hundreds of kids attending summer day camps in the park.
Among other things, participants learned to take water samples from the lake and look at them through a microscope to measure stream flows, to identify leaves and animal tracks, and to use a compass.
Many of the kids embraced the program with enthusiasm, but even those who didn’t got a taste of experiential learning and took away something from it.
The park may be a great place to play, walk and listen to music, but it is also a great ecosystem and environmental laboratory.
While trying to make ECOS more city oriented, I also knew, and frequently pointed out, that that can be difficult when your headquarters is miles away on the far edge of Niskayuna.
The current board of ECOS, by becoming part of the group that wants to fix up the Casino and put it to productive use, shows that it agrees with my vision of making ECOS an urban-oriented and -based environmental organization.
And it has some great partners in the Upper Union Neighborhood Association; the Schoharie River Center, which also has environmental programs and does excellent work with kids; and a woman caterer from Hamilton Hill who wants to use the Casino’s restaurant-grade equipment (still, amazingly, in good shape) to teach community members of all ages to cook and to prepare and serve food herself.
Whether it’s ARPA money, community development funds, grants or some other source, the city needs to take advantage and support this project.
Art Clayman of Schenectady is the former editorial page editor for The Daily Gazette.