CAPITAL REGION — The boats are back.
The eastern end of the Erie Canal opened for the 2018 season on Tuesday, allowing boats large and small to again ply the central channel of the Mohawk River after being lifted and lowered through three dozen canal locks.
The system's annual opening comes with the hope and expectation, especially along Schenectady's revitalized riverfront, of leisure travelers stopping and spending money -- money that fuels local marinas and restaurants.
This will be the 194th season for the canal, which debuted in 1825 and was, in those days, the heart of Schenectady's economy. This is also the 100th anniversary of the Barge Canal, as the canal system's modern incarnation is known.
At a ceremony Tuesday in Waterford, state officials opened the canal from Waterford to Oneida Lake. The western section, along with the Champlain Canal running north from Waterford, will open on Saturday. After that, all 524 miles of state canal will be open.
"New York's canal system helped build the Empire State, and it remains a key economic and tourism driver," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a prepared statement announcing the opening.
A study commissioned by the Canal Corp. found there is nearly $400 million annually in direct tourism and recreation spending tied to the canals and the Erie Canalway Trail, a recreation pathway that runs most of the canal's length.
The Water's Edge Lighthouse restaurant in Glenville expects increased business, even if it wasn't yet in evidence on Tuesday.
"We have a certain amount of boats that are going up to the Thousand Islands, and they stop here for dinner," said Water's Edge owner Pat Popolizio. "I haven't seen any of that yet, but we should in the next week or two."
Popolizio is a booster of the Schenectady riverfront's potential, especially with the Rivers Casino more-established this year, and completion of much of the Mohawk Harbor residential-commercial development around it, which includes a new sheltered harbor on the Schenectady side of the river.
"We think it's going to be an excellent season. People seem to be very positive," Popolizio said.
Schenectady resident Sing Sonthivongnorath will be launching a new business venture, Mohawk River Cruise, around the end of May, using two glassbottom boats. Leaving from the Scotia landing, the master captain's boats will travel on the river as far as the Rexford cliffs and Lock 7, depending on the length of the ride. He will offer both public and private cruises.
"I'm looking forward to a prosperous season hopefully," Sonthivongnorath said. "We hope for a lot of support from the community. We have a lot of support from the businesses along the river. We've been planning this for awhile now."
"We've got a beautiful jewel here," he said of the river.
Mohawk Harbor will be offering kayak rentals at its sheltered harbor starting Memorial Day weekend, and the casino is hoping a free weekly outdoor concert series as well as July 4 fireworks will attract people off the river.
“Working with our friends at the Galesi Group, Rivers Casino and Resort is helping make the Schenectady waterfront a world-class destination for everyone in the region to enjoy -- including recreational boaters on the Mohawk,” Justin Moore, assistant general manager at Rivers Casino, said in a statement.
State officials are trying to get more boaters to try the canal. For the second straight year, the New York State Canal Corp. is waiving tolls for recreational vessels to encourage use.
Speakers at a symposium in Schenectady last week discussed the economic impacts as well as the city's canal history.
Canal Corp. Director Brian U. Stratton, a former Schenectady mayor, on Tuesday called the canal "an increasingly important economic engine as more tourism and recreational assets become available."
The Canal Corp. spent the winter repairing and upgrading its infrastructure, including a major refurbishing of Lock 11 in Amsterdam that was slowed by the historic ice jam that occurred from Schenectady west in the heart of the winter.
Canal Corp. spokesman Steven Gosset said the canal system didn't experience any significant effects from the ice jam, though the dock at Gateway Landing Park in Rotterdam suffered damage and was recently removed.
The Schenectady County-owned park is already scheduled for $27,000 in capital improvements this year, including replacement of the dock, said county spokesman Joe McQueen.
There are also many private docks along the river, but most of those are removed seasonally by their owners to avoid winter damage.
Popilizio said there were some "scrapes" to his property from the ice, "but nothing for which a good raking isn't going to help us."
The canal will remain open daily into November.