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Cuomo Announces Initiative to Reimagine Erie Canal as Catalyst for Economic Development, Resiliency

ESF COO Mahoney, alumnus Martens to help lead effort
5/17/2019

Historic image of Erie Canal

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has announced a sweeping initiative to examine how the 195-year-old Erie Canal can be reimagined for the 21stcentury in an effort to boost local economies, inspire new opportunities for tourism and recreation, and strengthen environmental resiliency along the historic waterway.

"The Erie Canal corridor is one of our most iconic assets and we know it can spur a new wave of prosperity," Governor Cuomo said. "The Canal helped make New York the Empire State and its infrastructure can be reimagined and adapted for new uses in upstate communities now and into the future. The future is bright for the waterway's contribution to our state's tourism, economic development and recreation goals."

A key pillar of this initiative is the Governor's Remagine the Canal Task Force, which was announced today by Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul as she celebrated the opening of the Canal System for the 2019 navigation season in Rochester. At the event, the Lieutenant Governor also named a new tugboat after New York women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The task force will be chaired by Joanie Mahoney, ESF's chief operating officer who also serves as New York State Thruway Authority chair and was former Onondaga County Executive. Mahoney will oversee outreach in Central New York. Former Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy, will serve as regional co-chair in Western New York, while Joseph Martens, an ESF alumnus and former Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, will serve as co-chair in the Mohawk Valley. Other members will be announced in the coming weeks.

"As an upstate New Yorker who lives near the Erie Canal and as a frequent visitor to canal communities, I know their potential to continue to serve as a major economic development magnet," said Hochul. "The canals have played a crucial role in New York's history and growth, and with the creation of this task force, we intend to make sure the canals remain a vital force and make a positive contribution to the economic well-being and quality of life in the hundreds of communities they travel through."

The Governor's initiative will:

  • Identify potential new uses for the Erie Canal aimed at improving the quality of life for New Yorkers
  • Evaluate how the Erie 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 Erie Canal can help mitigate impacts from flooding and ice jams to improve resiliency and restore ecosystems in canal communities
  • Identify opportunities for using Erie Canal infrastructure to expand irrigation for Western New York farms

To help meet those goals, Governor Cuomo has created a task force that is an outgrowth of the Reimagine the Canals Competition, held last year by the New York Power Authority and New York State Canal Corporation. 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; this task force will pick up and explore many of the ideas that competition produced.

Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA president and CEO, said, "We saw the competition as the starting point for a vigorous conversation about the future of the Erie Canal. New York is blessed with abundant water resources, which have underpinned the state's economic growth. With this task force, we can look at new and exciting ways to use our water control infrastructure and see how the Erie Canal can help address the modern needs of upstate communities."

NYPA operates the Canal Corporation as a subsidiary.

"There are 147 communities along the Erie Canal and we should do everything we can to help them become more resilient," said Brian U. Stratton, Canal Corporation director. "Just as it transformed New York when it opened nearly 200 years ago, the Erie Canal can be transformed so it remains an essential piece of the fabric that defines upstate New York."

"So much of the New York that we know today was defined by the Erie Canal," Mahoney said. "As it nears its third century, now is a great time to look at how the canal corridor can help increase community resilience, offer new and exciting recreational opportunities and boost the economies of the communities it travels through. The Erie Canal has long been the source of inspiration and no doubt will be again."

"I am honored by this appointment from Governor Cuomo to serve as a Reimagine the Canals regional chair," said Duffy. "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 that economy now and into the future."

"The Erie Canal is one of New York's most important iconic cultural resources," said Martens. "After nearly two centuries of service, it's time to take a fresh look on how the Canal is used and can best benefit the state and the communities that line its banks. I'm excited to look into ways this national treasure can help address 21stcentury challenges."

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 panel is also 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.

Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball said, "The Erie Canal is an important water source to a number of farms along its western banks. 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."

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said, "Reimagining the Erie Canal gives New York the unique opportunity to reduce the impacts of flooding and other environmental threats while simultaneously helping to scale back our carbon emissions and achieve New York's nation-leading goals to reduce climate pollution. Water is perhaps New York's greatest and most critical resource, and managing it to benefit and protect communities will strengthen our resiliency and safeguard New Yorkers."

The reimagining initiative follows up on other successful efforts by Governor Cuomo to invest in the canal corridor, including the Downtown Revitalization Initiativeand Taste NY, which have stoked new industries, businesses and housing in canal communities.

Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky said, "Reactivating former industrial waterfronts has fueled economic growth throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and it's only fitting that the Erie Canal-a game changer for the New York State economy when it opened-will further help to create jobs and opportunity in the communities along its banks."

Harnessing the Canal's full potential to attract more tourism and recreation will also be a focus. There are 1.6 million trips taken annually on the Erie Canal Trailway, the former towpath used by mules and horses to pull barges in the canals' early days. The Trailway is part of Governor Cuomo's Empire State Trail, which at 750 miles will be the largest state multi-use trail network when completed in late 2020.

Acting State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid said, "As we move toward completion of the Empire State Trail, the opportunities to expand and improve recreation for local communities and visiting Trail users by celebrating the canal infrastructure and neighboring lands are enormous. Nothing is more iconic and speaks more to what powered New York's economic growth than the Erie Canal."
This task force is also aimed at helping to meet the goals of Governor Cuomo's Green New Deal, which mandates that New York's power be 100 percent clean and carbon-free by 2040, and that 70 percent of electricity used in New York come from renewable sources by 2030. It will also help fulfill the goals of the Governor's Reforming the Energy Visionstrategy that is building a more affordable, efficient and resilient energy system to address climate change and forge a clean-energy economy.

The navigation season on the Canal System, which includes the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Champlain and Oswego canals, runs today through Oct. 16. A portion of the system, including parts of the Erie Canal, along with the Champlain and Oswego canals, have had their openings postponed due to high water flows stemming from heavy rains and snow melt.

For the third straight year, tolls have been waived for recreational vessels. For more information, visit www.canals.ny.gov.