PAUL SMITHS - When Gov. Mario Cuomo traveled to the Adirondacks in May of 1989 to open the state Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths, he said the new facility, along with a smaller visitor center in Newcomb that would open the following year, would provide visitors, residents and school children with "an in-depth understanding of the ecology and resources of the Adirondacks."
The ribbon-cutting marked the ceremonial end to years of debate, much of it fueled by politics and bureaucratic wrangling, over the location, cost, management and purpose of the interpretive centers. Gov. David Paterson now wants to close the centers in order to save money for a fiscally struggling state.
The idea of developing a system of visitor centers in the Park was included in the 1970 report of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which also recommended the creation of the Park Agency. But it didn't take hold until the early 1980s.
Naturalist Ellen Rathbone, in the moose hat, talks to a group of children on a snowshoe walk at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center’s Winter Weekend in January 2005.
(Photo courtesy of the VIC)
"At that time, the agency commissioners were very interested in getting the message out of what the Park was and what it was all about," said John Collins, who served on the APA board from 1984 to 1995.
Collins credits agency naturalist Mike Storey and operations director Edmund Lynch as the two "visionaries" who brought the idea of a visitor interpretive center to the table.
"They both were extraordinarily important in helping the commissioners develop some sort of program to present to the governor," he said.
Storey said he wrote a proposal to the agency in 1982 that said a visitor contact system of some kind was needed in the Park to provide tourist information and educational programs and exhibits to the public.
The following year, the agency formed a committee of community leaders and stake-holders to look into the proposal. One of their recommendations, Storey said, was that a visitor center ought to be created in the interior of the Park in order to draw people into the Adirondacks.
"I wrote the parameters for the development of a visitor center and what its objectives ought to be," Storey said. "We wanted it to be an outdoor-based thing where people would get to know the natural ecosystems of the Park."
"The place was not to be a museum," Collins said, "but a place to present an understanding of why stewardship of the Park's resources was important."
Once the guidelines were developed, the APA asked communities across the Park to submit proposed locations for the facility, which was expected to cost about $2 million. While there are now two visitor interpretive centers, the initial plan was only for one.
More than 50 proposals were ultimately submitted, many of which didn't fit the criteria the agency was looking for, Storey said.
Two sites that received strong consideration but were not picked were in Tupper Lake and Elizabethtown.
In December 1984, the Tupper Lake school board offered land it owned next to L.P. Quinn Elementary School for the visitor center. The community made a strong push for the facility, recalled Jim LaValley, who was working for the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce at the time.
"The school, with all of its acreage and the Raquette River right there, seemed like a perfect fit," he said. "The school was prepared to donate the land. We also had a builder who was willing to construct the facility and lease it back to the state."
But the Tupper Lake location wasn't picked. The agency's evaluation found the site lacked a large area of mature forest, contained no significant geological outcrops and was too close to areas "with potential for conflicting development," according to a June 7, 1985 Enterprise article.
"It was too small," Storey said. "Most of it was an abandoned gravel bed, and it had no really good examples of natural history other than the oxbow on the river."
Two decades later, the site that was considered for the VIC in 1985 became the site of the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, also known as the Wild Center.
Another site that was among the "finalists" for the visitor center site was a parcel of land near Split Rock Falls in the town of Elizabethtown. But its location near the periphery of the Park was seen as a drawback.
Elizabeth Thorndike, an APA commissioner from 1980 to 1995, said some people wanted the VIC to be built in Lake George because it was a major gateway to the Park for tourists.
"But some of us felt it shouldn't just be for visitors, it should be for everyone, including school children," she said. "Plus the idea was to have a centrally-located facility."
Only two sites made it through the several rounds of intense scrutiny by the agency: Newcomb and Paul Smiths. The Newcomb site, located on 300 acres next to Rich Lake, was on land owned by Syracuse University and maintained by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The Paul Smiths site was a 2,800-acre parcel of land owned by Paul Smith's College.
In August 1985, the APA board, after what Collins described as "arm wrestling among ourselves," ultimately recommended Cuomo select the Newcomb site for the visitor center, the cost of which had now doubled to $4.1 million.
"It was our opinion that the Newcomb site was the most diverse and right in the middle of the Park," Collins said.
"They're both great sites; there's no question about that," Thorndike added. "But our direction was to find one place centrally located. It goes without saying that Paul Smiths, geographically, is not centrally located in the Park."
It came as a surprise to both Collins and Thorndike when, three months later, Cuomo picked the Paul Smiths site for the Visitor Interpretive Center.
The sizable acreage offered by Paul Smith's College and better traffic counts at the Paul Smiths site were the deciding factors, a Cuomo aide told the Enterprise for a Nov. 15, 1985 article.
Storey said the Paul Smiths site had much more to offer.
"It had Jenkins Mountain," he said. "It had five ponds, streams and marshes and just about every ecosystem in the Park. It was huge, and it was an easier site to develop than Newcomb because it had existing trails and roads."
But Cuomo hadn't forgotten about Newcomb. In what some considered a political concession to lawmakers in Essex County, the governor proposed using the Newcomb site for a satellite visitor center.
"There were politics involved," Thorndike said. "The supervisor of the town of Necomb mounted a huge lobbying effort with people in Essex County. So there we were with two visitor centers."
Having two facilities instead of one created funding problems that plagued the agency for years, Collins said.
"Had there been one, maybe the support would have been adequate to do the kind of programs that Mike Storey, Ed Lynch and the commissioners had in mind," he said. "Having two rather than one spread what little money there was too thin."
The Park Agency's decision to run and staff the visitor centers itself has also been an issue over the years. At the outset, some suggested the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which had its own environmental education facilities, would be better off running the visitor centers.
An Enterprise editorial from August 1985 said the APA's operating such a facility is "beyond the agency's mandate" and a "wild expansion" of the agency's function.
There was even a lack of support for the VICs within the Park Agency itself, Storey said.
"I think the lawyers in the agency never really felt it was part of what the agency should be," he said.
That debate continues to this day. When Gov. Paterson announced plans to close the VICs earlier this month, he noted that the facilities were not part of the APA's "core mission," something agency administrators had acknowledged before, even while pledging support for the VICs.
But Collins argues that VICs are a necessary for the agency to succeed.
"The VICs are outside the roar and uproar of the daily life that is the Adirondack Park Agency," he said. "They are not the core mission, but they might have been and should have been part of the regional planning of the Park."
Thorndike says she's been trying to make that argument for years.
"I pointed out then, and I've continued to say, that the educational function (of the VICs) is very much a part of the agency's statutory function for being responsible for long-range Park planning," she said.
Paterson included the proposed closure of the VICs in his Executive Budget proposal. He said the move would save the state, which is in the throes of a fiscal crisis, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
But supporters say closing the VICs would negatively impact the many local residents, visitors and school children who've benefitted from the facilities' educational programs and trail systems.
Thorndike, who is also a board member of the Adirondack Park Institute, which raises funds to support programs at the visitor centers, said she'd like to see state support for the VICs continue.
"I firmly believe that the mission of the VICs ought to be supported by the state of New York, at least partially," she said.
Collins said he hopes Paul Smith's College and Syracuse University can "rescue" the VICs, at least on a temporary basis.
"If the state ever gets its pocketbook back, maybe then it could step back in and say, 'We have this wonderful treasure; let's tell people about it.'"
Contact Chris Knight
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