Proposed Empire State Greenway: Where the rubber could finally meet the road for the state’s economy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Eye from Albany
July 2005

Proposed Empire State Greenway: Where the rubber could finally meet the road for the state’s economy
by Paul M. Bray

Governor Pataki announced “long-term” plans to create an “Empire State Greenway” stretching from the Niagara River and Niagara Falls to Battery Park in Manhattan. This awesome vision of one grand corridor of water, land, communities large and small and, yes, cultural heritage is fitting for the Empire State and could probably only be realized through the boldest of leadership in a state distinguished with a heritage of boldness.

Ah, but a long-term vision from a Governor about to depart from the scene doesn’t make much sense. Is this a sign that Governor Pataki intends to run for a forth term, that he is still keeping that option seriously open or that he simply wants to set the table for his successor?

I am beginning to see signs that Governor Pataki will seek a forth term. Yes, I have been wrong before. I thought he would be on the ticket with President Bush last year when logic suggested the President would tack to the political center to soften his very rough edges on Iraq, environment, tax and cultural issues. I certainly didn’t think he would try and succeed by playing the fear factor card. That he did. Cheney was a perfect partner when a campaign’s message is fear.

Now the national die is cast for the Republicans to come from the right in the next presidential election and even the most attractive and skillful former Governor from North Korea (as some on the right view New York State) should have little chance on the national stage. So, why not stick with being king of the hill in the Empire State? In addition, being Governor is a better spot from which to be selected as VP on the next republican ticket. Is this why the steady flow of press releases for hand outs of state funds continue from the Governor’s office?

The Empire State Greenway could be the ticket for New York’s future prosperity and a centerpiece for the November 2006 election. No kidding. It has the majesty of connecting two world-class attractions, New York City and Niagara Falls, through a long and great corridor of water and transportation punctuated with centers of learning and research creating the economies of the future. The big questions are whether the dots can be connected, the vision can made inspiring enough to generate public and private capital and the state can get its act together.

Peter Tufo who headed the Thruway Authority under Governor Cuomo tried to save upstate New York by planning for a canal recreationway and using the Thruway Authority to be like the NY-NJ Port Authority as the financing engine. Great idea but Tufo fell victim to the asphalt bureaucrats at the Thruway who in no way were going to be co-opted into being an economic development engine for upstate.

Throughout Pataki’s years in office no bold vision has been embraced to effectively revitalize upstate NY despite the upstate’s finances being in ruin and business and people fleeing. Pataki has made public investments in university-centered high tech across upstate but that alone has not invigorated declining cities that need to be attractive enough for the creative class that drives high tech.

Now the Governor “unveiled a bold new vision to create ‘The Erie Canal Greenway'”. To lead this effort he appointed Carmella Mantello to move from the Hudson River Valley Greenway and Hudson River National Heritage Area to become Canal Corporation Director. Her task is to lead an interagency task force in coming up with a “comprehensive set of recommendations to create the new (Erie Canal) Greenway” which ultimately will connect with the Niagara River and Hudson River Greenways.

In Carmella, the Governor has picked a great cheerleader for partnerships, which sets the right tone. We do need partnerships between the state and local governments and with the private sector. But even more we need bold efforts changing the way things have been done for a long time.

Here are some of the areas that cry out for changes and would be instrumental to establishing a real Empire State Greenway.

1. Real regionalism. Simply stated, upstate New York will never recover without real regionalism. The Governor’s greenway press release recognizes the potential of “incorporating a more regional approach to land-use planning”. A regional approach was part of the promise of the Hudson River Greenway law that included a compact planning process or a vehicle for negotiated regionalism for the counties on both sides of the River and including incentives for local governments that got their regional decision making act together. Compact planning is great in concept and has worked in the Denver region with the Mile High Compact, the LI Pine Barrens and the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro area that went from a compact to regional government. Yet, in the Hudson Valley the greenway opted for regionalism lite or pledge to five principles and you have a regional approach without changing anything. For a greenway that will turn things around for the 56 of 57 upstate counties that have been in decline since the 1950s, it will require real regionalism where matters of infrastructure development, taxes, environment and social policy are made based on regional considerations. Governor Pataki led the way to a real compact between the Catskill communities and New York City, but will that happen for the Empire State Greenway?

2. Reinvented state economic development program. Instead of a state economic development program that scatters tax incentives and economic development grants (often inducing sprawl), the Empire State Greenway must have a strategic state economic development policy that that supports the existing cities in the Greenway and facilitates the right infrastructure to attract high tech development. Tufo’s upstate port authority idea to plan and finance the infrastructure remains the best idea yet for achieving upstate economic development.

3. Reinvented the state tourism program. As great as I Love NY was, it is totally out of step with marketing special places from Niagara Falls, Erie Canal, Hudson River and New York City that would make up the Empire State Greenway. For the sum of the grand parts to be as dynamic and attractive as it can be, it calls for an environmentally, scenic and heritage sensitive tourism program that clearly gets the message that the Greenway is an ongoing, must place to visit and enjoy and ultimately to live. I Love NY made a habit of being out of sync with special places like greenways and heritage areas that have grown around the unique assets of the State. The Empire State Greenway won’t work if the state’s tourism efforts are not reinvented.

4. Connect the greenway to a new technology economy. While Niagara Mohawk seemed to get it when they advanced the notion of the Mohawk Valley/Erie Canal as a Digital Towpath (joining technology together with history and the waterway), the high tech and greenway/heritage sides of the coin have for the most part been mutually exclusive of each other. Both high tech development and the preservation and beneficial enjoyment of heritage and natural assets through a greenway are dependent on a high quality of life and of each other. Without high tech development, there are inadequate funds to protect heritage and the environment. Without protection of the environment and heritage assets, there will be no educated workforce or creative class willing to work in high tech business. The Empire State Greenway has to clearly be seen as a way and a means to mutually foster the growth of technology and management of a first class environment.

5. Establish real portals. While there is no question that New York City stands out as a world-class city, the state has been very lax in building up in the public’s mind its other outstanding cities that happen to be along the Empire State Greenway. Critical to the success of the Greenway is having visible and interesting cities like NYC, Albany and Buffalo as clear portals. Each needs to be a destination in itself as well as the jumping off point for the full range of activities associated with the waterways, towns, cities and farmland along the Greenway corridor.

6. Move from historic preservation to managing heritage. The historic narrative of the Empire State Greenway spanning epochs of natural history, settlement by native Americans, the first European settlement in America and revealing themes of transportation development, war, industrial development, immigration, arts and education attainment among many others makes the Greenway unique and interesting to anyone open to the story. New York State that has been a leader in historic preservation or the identification and preservation of historic buildings, but has been very slow to manage heritage or, in other words, develop the educational, recreational and sustainable economic benefits from its historic patrimony. Even New York’s primary private preservation advocacy organization, the Preservation League, turns its back on major heritage commemoratives like the Hudson and Champlain 400th anniversaries coming up in 2009 and the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War and 225th anniversary of the American Revolutionary War with major events having taken place in the state.

The Empire State Greenway offers the opportunity to gain our rightful recognition as the place where America began and where the story unfolded and continues to unfold. The state has the framework to transition from historic preservation to heritage management through its statewide heritage area system and two nationally designated heritage areas (the Erie Canalway and the Hudson River National Heritage Area) that can be strung together in The Empire State Greenway. It is heritage as well as the waterways that bind the Greenway together.

The Empire State Greenway notion is worthy of an empire state. What needs to be determined is whether the leadership exists as it once did in New York to realize great visions. Neither a paper greenway nor the shallow efforts we have seen for Quality Communities, state heritage areas and the Hudson River Valley Greenway will lead to greatness. Governor Pataki has placed an opportunity on the table. Only time will tell if he has the interest and ability to at least begin set it on the path to realization.