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Future for canal

The Erie Canal seeing a resurgence as it marks bicentennial of its start

Apple. Coca-Cola. Levi’s. Chevrolet. Delta Airlines. Subaru. The Erie Canal.

“They’re all international, iconic brands,” said Gregory Marshall, Visit Rochester Inc. senior vice president and director of marketing. “You could go anywhere in the world and say any of those words and people will know what you’re talking about.”

Marshall spoke last month at the New York State Canal Corp. forum on the economic impact of the Erie Canal, held at the Strong Museum of Play. He noted Rochester has some 2 million visitors who spend $1 billion here annually. Monroe County’s tourism accounts for one-third of the direct spending in the Finger Lakes region, he said.

“Collectively, the opportunity that we have to tell the existing visitors in New York State that the Erie Canal is out their window, or that for travelers that are leaving Germany next week, the Erie Canal can be part of their experience,” Marshall said. “That’s the opportunity we have collectively to aggregate our spending. The money we can bring in, the jobs we can create, the work we can do together bringing more tourists to the iconic Erie Canal is unbelievable.”

Two centuries after Gov. DeWitt Clinton was convinced by a bankrupt farmer to build a 363-mile ditch connecting the East Coast to areas in the Midwest, the Erie Canal is experiencing a rebirth, as towns and villages, businesses and community leaders come together to celebrate the engineering marvel.

“It’s such a great story, to know that there were so many naysayers,” said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul at the bicentennial event. “So many people did not believe in unleashing the potential of Upstate New York and indeed, connecting New York City, which was not that big of a city at the time, through the canal, creating places like Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, making them major cities.”

And the Erie Canal opened up the West.

“That is one of the most significant points in American history,” Hochul added. “And it happened in our back yard.”

Rochester Deputy Mayor Cedric Alexander also spoke at the event, noting Mayor Lovely Warren had recently appeared on CBS News’ Sunday Morning show, touting the canal and its impact on Rochester.

“She talked about how the Erie Canal was critical to the foundation of the city of Rochester by helping our population to grow, enabling our industrial identity at the time as a flour milling town,” Alexander said. “The Erie Canal was also a link to the underground railroad, where Rochester’s own Frederick Douglass would bring slaves here to help lead them to freedom.”

Many of Rochester’s important historical milestones, and future endeavors, are linked to the development of its water resources, Alexander added.

“We’re blessed to have a unique blend of natural and manmade resources and amenities that provide a quality of life that I feel is second to none,” he said. “The Erie Canal is one of those resources.”

A debt to his vision

The Erie Canal might not have happened were it not for a farmer who went to debtor’s jail because he was unable to reach outside markets with his crops. Writing under the pseudonym of Hercules, Jesse Hawley published articles from his cell in Canandaigua encouraging the construction of a canal connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the Great Lakes.

Clinton read the articles and was intrigued. But most were not. A handful of presidents declined to provide funding for the project so Clinton had to find the funds himself. On April 15, 1817, the state Legislature approved construction of the Erie Canal, a decade after Hawley began writing about his plan. The bill authorized $7 million for construction of the waterway, which was to be 40 feet wide and four feet deep.

The first shovels hit the dirt in Rome, Oneida County, on July 4, 1817. Dubbed “Clinton’s Folly” and “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” the Erie Canal was built mostly by immigrants and opened eight years after construction began.

The Canal Corp. notes that in 1829, some 3,640 bushels of wheat were transported down the canal from Buffalo. By 1837, this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached 1 million. In nine years, canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction.

With growing competition from railroads and highways, commercial traffic on the canal system declined dramatically during the 20th century. But the New York State Canal System is enjoying a revival as a recreational and historic resource.

“The mules named Sal have been gone from the towpath for more than 100 years and they’ve been replaced by hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers who make 1.6 million trips along the Erie Canalway trail each year,” said Canal Corp. director Brian Stratton at the forum. “And those boaters, bikers and hikers along the Erie Canal and along the Erie Canalway trail have an impact of nearly $400 million in tourism spending annually.”

New York’s canal system includes the Erie, Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca canals. The canals span 524 miles, connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and Lake Champlain. The waterways form the backbone of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and connect more than 230 unique and historic communities.

Visitors to the Rochester area can take part in the Erie Canal’s myriad festivals such as Fairport Canal Days, as well as board the Sam Patch, a replica packet boat based in Pittsford. Corn Hill Navigation Co. chairwoman Elizabeth Teall told the Rochester Business Journal that during the summer the organization can sell every seat aboard the 49-passenger boat.

“Sam has become an iconic fixture in the Port of Pittsford,” Teall said. “And we’re really proud of that.”

In the spring and fall, fourth-graders from surrounding school districts ride the Sam Patch as part of their history curriculum. In the past, students from Rochester City School District also could see the canal, aboard the Mary Jemison, a historical wooden vessel that ran from 2005 to 2013 at Corn Hill Landing. In many cases, Teall said, it was the first time city school students had been on a boat.

With Rochester’s downtown revitalization projects, businesses locating in the city and people moving downtown, Teall said the time is right to bring back a canal boat to the Corn Hill area.

“The day-to-day foot traffic is increasing,” she noted. “The city of Rochester and the Canal Corp. have a wonderful plan for revitalizing the West River Wall between Ford Street Bridge and the Court Street dam, so exactly where Corn Hill Navigation locates its downtown boat.”

Corn Hill Navigation is seeking funding for the new vessel, which is expected to cost roughly $150,000, plus costs to make it handicapped-accessible and adaptable to the group’s education programs. Additionally, Teall expects startup costs of $200,000.

Corn Hill Navigation is hoping to have the 49-passenger boat constructed and on the Genesee River and Erie Canal by fall 2018, Teall said. Eventually, the organization would like to upgrade to a two-tiered, 60-passenger boat downtown.

“We really feel strongly that this needs to be the community’s boat, Rochester’s boat, because everybody benefits from it,” Teall said.

Infrastructure investments in the canal enable and support redevelopment and revitalization of the communities along the canal, said forum moderator Heidi MacPherson, president of SUNY College at Brockport.

“We recognize the canal’s economic, cultural, social, agricultural, public health and community building benefits,” MacPherson said at the forum. “And we’re not just looking retrospectively at what the canal achieved. We are looking forward, at viewing the canal as a critical component of upstate revitalization that our governor has taken so seriously and has addressed so comprehensively.”

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to complete the Hudson River Valley Greenway and Erie Canalway trails by 2020, creating the Empire State Trail, the largest state multiuse trail in the nation. The state plans to develop 350 miles of new trail in three phases to create a 750-mile pathway for hiking and biking along scenic vistas. The Empire State Trail is to span much of the state, from the New York Harbor to the Canadian border, and from the shores of Lake Erie along the Erie Canal to the heart of the Capital Region.

Investment in Rochester

“The Rochester canal development means more than just waterfront initiatives,” said Thomas Hack, city of Rochester chief structural engineer, at the forum. “It means economic revitalization, tourism, recreation, historic preservation, community vision and a collaborative undertaking between Rochester and our numerous private and public partners.”

In the last 20 years, Hack said, the Rochester community has realized gains that have amounted to more than $635 million in both private and public investment in its waterways, from the renovation of the Ford Street Bridge and the East Side Promenade, to the city’s new undertaking at the West River Wall.

“The West River Wall project provides an original solution to two potentially contradictory goals: providing increased access to our waterfront while at the same time providing flood protection,” Hack said.

Some $7.5 million for the project has been secured, including state funding. The project includes the redevelopment of 2,200 linear feet of parkland, canal frontage, neighborhood connections and recreation opportunities downtown, and is expected to break ground in late 2018. The project is expected to take two years to complete, Hack told the RBJ this week.

The project also includes the establishment of three major landings on the Genesee River. A 6-foot retaining wall that borders the waterfront from the Ford Street Bridge to the Corn Hill area will be removed, allowing tourists to see and enjoy the river  where Corn Hill Navigation plans to launch its new boat.

“I know that there is no part of the canal that offers a greater sense of place or a deeper sense of pride for being part of the Erie Canal’s remarkable 200-year legacy than Rochester and the Finger Lakes region,” Canal Corp.’s Stratton said at the bicentennial event. “The canal, after all, made Rochester flour into the Flour City. And now Rochester is returning the favor, leading the way in reimagining how we use our canal system as it begins its third century.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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