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Mahoney: CNY leaders, not Cuomo, developed idea for $15 million NYS Fair gondola

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Aerial gondola

A rendering of the aerial gondola linking the New York State Fair to Lakeview Amphitheater. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to construct the gondola as part of a $70 million improvement project. 

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney has heard criticism of the $15 million aerial gondola that's funded in this year's state budget. With state legislators and observers slamming Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the investment, she wants to make one thing clear: The gondola was a local idea, not an Albany idea. 

Mahoney co-chaired a task force that developed proposals for Cuomo's consideration. He then included the plans in his 2017 State of the State address and budget proposal. The task force, she said, met twice in person and held two other meetings over the phone. 

The panel also held a public hearing. 

One member of the task force, state Sen. John DeFrancisco, said in an interview with The Citizen earlier this month that the gondola wasn't one of the group's recommendations. He attributed the idea to Cuomo, who he said "started making calls shortly before the budget was released that he wanted to do the gondola." 

Mahoney differed with DeFrancisco's comments. She said the central New Yorkers on the task force requested Cuomo's support for the gondola project. 

"The requirement that (Cuomo) had was that it be a bottom-up process and he put local people on a task force and asked us to prioritize how that investment should be spent at the fair, and we came together," she said. 

The task force's work began using an updated project list from a master plan that was developed in 2015, when Cuomo proposed the first round of funding for the state fairgrounds. 

One of the projects on that list was the gondola, according to a PowerPoint presentation provided by Mahoney's office. 

"It was talked about at the very first meeting and then every meeting after that," Mahoney said. "It ended up on our list of priorities." 

Mahoney believes the gondola was an appealing choice to receive funding from the state because of investments being made in the trail system across New York. While the gondola has been discussed as a way to transport people from the fairgrounds to the nearby Lakeview Amphitheater, officials say the goal is to make it a year-round attraction. 

In a fact sheet released by Cuomo's office in January, the state said the gondola "will serve as a link between the fairgrounds and Onondaga County's 'Loop the Lake' trail system and serve as a multi-season tourist attraction for central New York." 

Mahoney said the plan is for a private operator to run the gondola, which will offer passengers views of Syracuse and Onondaga Lake. The terminus for the gondola will feature a refurbished Taste NY area, where visitors can sample New York-made beverages and food products year-round. 

Any benefits of the gondola have been overshadowed by critics who say that it's an example of government waste. Locally, some central New York leaders have railed against the $15 million project. 

Mahoney thinks those who are behind the anti-gondola rhetoric also have criticized Lakeview Amphitheater, a project along Onondaga Lake. The amphitheater hosted its first concert in 2015. Its first full season was last summer. 

The continued criticism, Mahoney said, could make it more difficult for the region to receive the state's financial support in the future. 

"This was an opportunity for us on the local level to invest $50 million in the state fairgrounds where we live and the infighting over it doesn't make it appealing, I would imagine, to continue to partner," she said. "And there's a lot of places across the state that would like the opportunity to do this kind of thing."

The gondola is scheduled to be completed by June 2018. The project must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration because it would cross over Interstate 690. 

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