How sleazy can a government program be? According to a National Park Service spokesman, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is said to be the most important National Heritage Corridor in the country. This 524-mile long National Park Service Corridor extends along the Erie and Champlain Canals, from Buffalo to Albany, and thence to Whitehall at the south tip of Lake Champlain. Also included in the 1,834 square mile Heritage Area are the Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego Canal regions. The plans encompass private land along the entire length of the corridor. Of late, the Park Service is claiming that the defunct parts of the Champlain Canal are not part of the Corridor, but formal plans by its consultant, the New York Parks and Conservation Association, include the muddy swales where the historic canal is no longer navigable and has been superseded by the Hudson River.
Congress has authorized $400,000 for fiscal 2003 and $600,000 for fiscal 2004 for the Park Service's involvement in the Corridor, which was designated in 2000. The Secretary of Interior has appointed a 17-member Corridor Commission, which is supposed to release a "Preservation and Management Plan" in late 2004. Among other agencies involved are the State and Federal Departments of Transportation, New York's powerful Office of Parks, Recreation Historic Preservation, and the New York State Canalway Authority, which is within the Thruway Authority. Yet the Park Service's information about the program is evasive and what little information about the program that has come to light outside of the Park Service's public relations presentations shows that the program is fraught with abuse and corruption. The Park Service and the Canalway Authority have refused in-person and public requests for budgetary information about all involved agencies except the Park Service, and gave this out only after some persistence. Yet the federal and state agencies, as well as numerous regional agencies are well-coordinated and closely interlocked in all their Corridor-related activities.
Janice Revella's backyard has been threatened with condemnation by the City of Schenectady for the cross-state Canalway Trail, the most singular intrinsic element of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. She shocked a seven-person gaggle of National Park Service officials and consultants that were present by appearing at the public meeting about the National Heritage Corridor that the Park Service convened in Glens Falls on a cold night in December. Her appearance was in sharp contrast to the idealism in the language of one the consultants, who, with faraway eyes and upraised arms, had just waxed prayerfully about her vision of "linkages" and "partnerships" for recreation.
"I don't understand what gives a person the right to condemn the property I own by eminent domain, " Ms. Revella implored, almost in tears. "They're not putting any bike path on my property! Where are they going to put the restroom behind a tree, on my property? You'll never get it, not in a million years! I'm tired of it."
When I had arrived at this meeting, I had asked to sign on the speakers' sheet, but the official at the registration desk had said that no time was allocated for separate statements and that questions would be answered at any time during the meeting. I was the first person to raise my hand. When the presentation by one official had reached the topic of recreational trails and partnerships, I raised my hand several times to get his attention, but the speaker repeatedly said that questions would be just a couple of minutes later. It became apparent that the time to ask questions would be far later. I broke into his talk with my question, "How do the 'partnerships' work where the National Park Service is building a trail across the entire state and the local municipalities do the condemnation and threats of condemnation in each jurisdiction?" I pointed out the importance of Ms. Revella's attendance. Not surprisingly, my question was not answered. After Ms. Revella spoke, a Park Service spokesman pronounced that eminent domain was not the subject of the meeting. However, there were no other people who owned land along the canal present and the canalway property owners had not formally been notified.
I posed other questions, none of which was answered, except that limited budgetary information was given by Frank Dean, the Park Service Project Director, after I rephrased a simple question about five times. He punished my persistence by leaving his seat at the back of the auditorium and coming to the front to announce that I come to meetings to disrupt them. When I was given the time to speak during the three-minutes per person the officials later decided to allocate, another National Park Service official, David Gains, the Contracting Office's Technical Representative, almost ran to the front of the auditorium. He tried to shout over my voice that my three minutes time was up after two minutes, just as I began pointing out the Park Service's secretive plan for a potential Battlefield Park in a build-up area centered around Bloody Pond Road in the nearby town of Lake George.
One important question pertained to what a Park Service spokesman referred to as "Partnerships for Economic Development" in his presentation. I pointed out that the Syracuse Post-Standard reported in September that a single bidder had entered a successful bid for the development rights to the entire 524-mile State-owned canal system, purchasing the rights for $30,000 last year! The newspaper article, by Michelle Breidenbach, said that "Richard Hutchens won the contract after submitting the only written proposal in response to a classified ad that was on page 62 of a state-run, $175-per-year newsletter. Below listings for mops, towels and coveralls, the state shopped for a developer who shared its dream to build homes across New York State with their own mini-canals leading boaters to the Erie, Cayuga-Seneca, Oswego and Champlain canal systems."
Thirty-two other companies had previously expressed interest in canal development, according to the article, but the State failed to contact them. Hutchens has since formed a partnership to launch a $95 million residential development near Syracuse. The issue of the single low bid erupted into a major scandal.
I asked the Park Service spokesman how this sort of "economic development partnership" with single bids on huge projects worked. The response? This question pertained to an entirely separate agency, the Canal Authority, and was not within the Park Service's purview. However, a short time later, the Park Service spokesman called on a representative of the Canal Authority in the audience by name, John Cunningham, and introduced him to the audience. The Park Service uses its "partnerships" to play a shell game.
It became obvious that the display of expensively produced slides and the speeches without substance were simply huckstering. In the audience were mainly sycophantic representatives of municipalities and non-profits looking for handouts for their pet trails, parks, and other tourism schemes.
My husband Peter LaGrasse wasn't recognized to speak until every person that the moderator could entice to give a statement had finished speaking, but his short remarks were worth waiting for. Peter pointed out that he has been chairman of the Stony Creek Board of Assessors since 1976 and is Captain of the Stony Creek Emergency Squad, a graduate architect, and an engineer.
"As an engineer, I like canals," he said. "But the canal is already here. This is a Heritage Corridor. It is a plan for a total change in cultural orientation."
"The power to tax is the power to destroy," he said. "If your Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is successful, a new culture will replace the current culture and different people will move into the area. If the economic development that you plan kicks in, it will destroy lives. Instead, there will be new lives. Different people will be living in the area, people who can afford the taxes. If this scheme succeeds, the indigenous population will not be able to continue to live in the area."
Carol W. LaGrasse