More than two centuries after the first shovels hit the ground to build a 363-mile channel connecting the East Coast to areas in the Midwest, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is launching a major initiative to explore the reimagining of the Erie Canal as a catalyst for economic growth.
The sweeping initiative will examine ways in which to boost local economies, inspire new opportunities for tourism and creation and strengthen environmental resiliency along the historic waterway. A key pillar of the initiative is Cuomo’s Reimagine the Canal Task Force.
“The Erie Canal Corridor is one of New York’s most iconic assets and remains a key economic driver for the region and the state,” Cuomo said in a statement Friday. “The canal helped make New York the Empire State and this initiative will reimagine the canal and adapt it for new uses in upstate communities, furthering Upstate New York’s unprecedented growth.”
The initiative will:
• Identify potential new uses for the Erie Canal aimed at improving the quality of life for New Yorkers;
• Evaluate how the canal can support and enhance economic development along the canal corridor;
• Find new opportunities to enhance recreation and tourism along the Erie Canal;
• Assess how the canal can help mitigate impacts from flooding and ice jams to improve resilience and restore ecosystems in canal communities; and
• Identify opportunities for using the Erie Canal infrastructure to expand irrigation for Western New York farms.
The task force is an outgrowth of the Reimagine the Canals Competition, which was held last year by the New York Power Authority and its subsidiary, New York State Canal Corp. The competition rewarded the best ideas to enable New York’s canals to serve as an engine of economic development or spark new forms of recreation.
Submissions for the competition came from nine states and seven countries, including India and Vietnam.
“The New York Canal System is not only an iconic recreational destination, it is also an essential part of our economic past, present and future,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said. “As we kick off the 2019 canal season we launch the next phase of Reimagine the Canals with a task force to guide bold and innovative new ideas.”
The task force—which will be chaired by Joanie Mahoney, New York State Thruway Authority chair and former Onondaga County executive—will explore many of the ideas that the competition has already produced. Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Inc. president and CEO Bob Duffy will serve as regional co-chairman in Western New York.
“I am honored by this appointment from Gov. Cuomo to serve as a Reimagine the Canals regional chair,” Duffy said. “The Erie Canal helped spark the surge of the upstate economy and remains an important part of New York’s history. This initiative will identify ways for our canal system to further support the economy now and into the future.”
The panel is expected to examine how canal infrastructure can be used to increase the reliability of the water supply to farms in Western New York—which now draw water from the canal—and can enable additional land to be used for agriculture.
“The Erie Canal is an important water source to a number of farms along its western banks,” state Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball said. “This task force offers the opportunity to now look at expanding the use of the canal to minimize the risk of drought on our farms and support the production of high-value crops, specifically fruits and vegetables.”
Helping guide the task force will be the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a part of the State University of New York. It will work to engage stakeholders and canal communities, a process that will include a series of public meetings across the state where residents, business owners and municipal leaders can provide input on the canal’s future.
The reimagining initiative builds on other state efforts to invest in the canal corridor, including the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and Taste NY, which have attracted new industries, businesses and housing in canal communities. Hochul also noted that a new vessel has been dedicated in honor of suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The Erie Canal was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1825, linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. The New York State Canal System, formerly known as the Barge Canal, opened May 15, 1918.
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.
The navigation season on the canal system, which includes the Erie Canal, was postponed in some areas due to high water flows stemming from heavy rains and snow melt. The season officially opened Friday and will continue through Oct. 16.
Fees have been waved for recreational vessels for the third continuous year.