Completion of the Erie Canal nearly 200 years ago transformed Upstate New York. By connecting the Atlantic Seaboard to the Great Lakes, the canal also spurred growth in many other parts of the country.
The canal ceased to be a vital artery for transporting goods years ago, but its importance to the upstate region remains. It now is part of the 524-mile New York State Canal System, which stretches from Lake Erie to the bottom of Lake Champlain, and has become one of New York’s top tourist draws.
This reinvention of the Erie Canal and linked waterways did not happen overnight. Nor did it occur as a natural evolution. Rather, years of planning and hard work went into making Upstate New York’s canals a tremendous tourism and recreation asset.
The New York State Canal Corp. has chief responsibility for maintaining and developing the canal system, but for more than a decade the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission has been a key player as well.
The commission, created after the canal system and communities along its banks were designated a national heritage corridor in 2000, has produced a preservation and management plan and a 2011-16 strategic plan as a “playbook” for carrying out its mission.
The focus of these documents is broad—from preservation of cultural and natural resources, recreation development and educational programs to tourism enhancement and community economic revitalization—and the commission’s goals are ambitious. Many will take years to accomplish. But to pursue these objectives, the commission itself needs action by Congress; its authority is set to expire next year.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced legislation to extend the canalway’s authorization for another 15 years; the bill also has sponsors in the House of Representatives. Whether the measure will encounter any opposition remains to be seen.
Let’s hope that’s not the case. In the early 19th century, the Erie Canal became the nation’s first regionally organized economic system. Some thought construction of the canal was a waste of money; others saw it as an investment in long-term prosperity—and they were right.
Regional cooperation and planning are essential for the canal system to be an economic benefit well into the future.
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