Erie Canal Village at standstill

Hopes dim as tourism facility crumbles

Published Jun 17, 2016 at 11:00am

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the seasonal opening of the Erie Canal Village, but this year it came and went with no activity at 5789 Rome-New London Road.

It’s been over 13 months since a new management group cut the chains barring the gate across the canal and into the site, but almost nothing has happened there since.

Weeds have grown tall on both sides of the canal. The packet boat Chief Engineer sits in shallow water — rotting wood, glass broken and debris visible inside.

From behind the re-locked gate of the bridge, one can see no change in the interior of the Village except for an anachronistic soda machine added to one building’s porch.

In late April last year, Empire State Heritage Park announced it would take over management of the Erie Canal Village that May 1. It would open the site to the public for free as restoration work began to bring it back to its original condition.

The Village — developed by the state to memorialize the starting point of the Erie Canal — was originally city-owned. It is now owned by the second private owner in its history, the Cape Vincent-based company Railstar. That company signed a five-year lease-purchase deal with Empire State Heritage Park last year. Railstar would continue to operate the train on site.

Ronald Trottier, head of Railstar, did not return multiple requests for an interview.

The site has been in flux for years. Most of the 24 buildings were cited by the city as “unsafe to enter” in 2012 and have remained closed to the public since then. Last year, Timothy D. Shannon, vice president and chief operating officer of Empire State Heritage, said, “Getting these buildings repaired and re-opened is our top priority.”

The management company outlined creation of www.empirestateheritagepark.com last year. It is still not in existence, and the Facebook page has no material besides a profile picture. Other websites related to the Village are just as underwhelming; www.eriecanalvillage.com was last updated in 1997 and www.eriecanalvillage.net now redirects to www.canalcruises.com, a different business owned by Railstar.

There were other misfires. There were discussions about a complete inventory of its historical artifacts at the Village.

The city recruited the Rome Historical Society to do the work, and the Society agreed to do it for free. The last inventory was in 2002 in preparation for the private sale to Railstar. An updated inventory was required for the management company to get insurance on the collection. No action has been taken on the inventory.

Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo, who was the manager for the Village from 1985 to 1991, said the city does not have its own place to put the artifacts during an inventory.

There was a proposal that the Village allow an inventory to be done on site in a specific building, but it was not code-compliant and officials there said they could not afford the cost to make it compliant simply for the inventory.

Finding a place to do the inventory seems to be the hold up now.

Ron Prince, chief executive officer of the company taking charge of the 210-acre historic site, said he’s waiting for the city to take its artifacts out of the buildings on site so the company can start repairs.

“If they do their part, I’ll do my part,” he said. The company has a clear target for when it wants to be operational: July 2017, the bicentennial of the canal. “There’s certainly enough time to make repairs,” he said, but the artifact issue stands in the way.

In mid-June last year, the revitalization effort suffered a major blow when the couple who held significant positions with the management group resigned their posts.

Edwin R. Williams, vice president for arts and entertainment, is married to Danielle Gorton-Williams, creative director for the Empire State Heritage Park. Williams posted on the Friends of the Erie Canal Village Facebook page that the remaining partners “aren’t interested in continuing a living history program, and instead intend to develop the property for other uses.” The page was closed soon after.

At that point, Prince noted that challenges in restoring the site required repairing infrastructure like plumbing and electrical work as the entire focus. Next up was to paint buildings, something that has not happened yet. Now, the goals that once included expansion (such as an Oneida Indian village on site) are on hold.

“Preservation,” he said of his priorities and focus. “That would be item number one.”