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Governor proposes $300M for Erie Canal improvements

Mike Desmond
The Erie Canal has become a major tourism destination.

Instead of chopping the State Barge Canal into different sections and perhaps closing some, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to spend on the canal for tourism, reducing flooding and improving irrigation for Niagara County farmers.

Instead of cutting back on the canal, the governor wants to spend $300 million on betterments. That is $100 million on communities along the waterway and $65 million on the continuing problems of ice jams and flooding around Schenectady.

The rest of the cash he is proposing in Wednesday's State of the State message would go to a series of issues like flooding, invasive species and ecosystem restoration. A key issue is the section of the governor's proposal that calls for Niagara County farmers to have access to canal water in dry years.

The plans for a better canal draw support from North Tonawanda State Sen. Rob Ortt, a life-long resident of the canal shore. He said tourism has become key to development along the waterway.

"That blue economy. There's a real economic driver to having the Erie Canal and it may not be the same thing that it was 100 years ago, 200 years ago, but going forward, it's no less important to those communities and to New York State as a whole as it was then," Ortt said. "It's just important in a different way and we gotta be sure to recognize that."

Ortt said he is seeing improvement as a result of the better canal.

"I was mayor of North Tonawanda for 5 years and know as well as anybody, from a local standpoint, how big the Canal is," said Ortt. "And you're right, when we were encouraging businesses and restaurants and when we were putting money into Gateway Harbor, all of that would not be possible or what would not be the same way if North Tonawanda was not on the water."

That does not mean the Republican Ortt will have a serious voice in what happens, since Democrats control the State Legislature. Ortt said many Downstaters in power do not understand the importance of the canal Upstate.

He said people have greater access to the canal than when it was industrial, citing the old Remington typewriter plant in North Tonawanda, which is now housing.

"There's the canal. They sit on the patio of the restaurant in the summer time and it's mobbed because they want to sit and eat dinner on the canal. It's just very different when you talk about access and who's on the canal, it's anybody. It's everybody, now, whereas years ago, it seemed like a lot of businesses had canal access," Ortt said.

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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