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Have an idea to improve New York's canal system?

Mike Desmond

The State Canal Corporation is looking for ideas to bring New York's canal system into the 21st century.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Created from the original Erie Canal, built more than 200 years ago to open the west, the chain of waterways has gradually shifted from freight transportation to pleasure boating.

The state is holding a series of meetings to get public input for the canal's future, including one in Lockport Monday night.

Canal Corporation Director Brian Stratton said the system has great advantages for the rest of the state.

"The economic value is in what the canal system generates, nearly $750 million a year in tourism spending, through bicycling, boating, camping, walking, birding, water processing," Stratton said.

Rockefeller Institute Fiscal Analysis Director Laura Schultz said they aren't just looking for practical ideas at this point.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"This is a blue sky, early stage, just go out and find out what communities want," Schultz said. "We want to go and collect hundreds of ideas from Post-It notes and idea boards, see what resonates with local communities, and then from there see if we can put together plans that can be implemented in the next 1, 3, 5 years for the task force to undertake."

Across the state, some communities have developed tourism centers, like the part of the Erie Canal that divides Tonawanda and North Tonawanda. They have taken a lesson from Europe, which has spent decades reviving old, often forgotten, canals as tourist highways into major cities.

One person in the crowd had family connections to Gov. Dewitt Clinton, who built the canal. Clinton Brown, on the Erie Canalway National Historic Corridor Commission, said the centuries-old canal is an engineering marvel.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"It's amazing to people who come to New York from other states that had canals - Ohio, Indiana and the rest - to see that this one is still active," he said. "It's still managed well by the state. It's constitutionally protected, but they go beyond that to try to do a great job."

Lockport Mayor Michelle Roman said he city is continuing its transition from manufacturing to tourism, citing the recent bike tour of the canal.

"We did the 'Cycle the Erie Canal' with 750 cyclists and this year, we set it up and we had tents and directions and had them sign up for the canal boat tour and they did cave tour and zip-lined and got ice cream, got something to eat," said Roman. "So we made it be more than just riding through and we had a lot of people stop and hang out for the day and say they would like to come back."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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