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Erie Canal Heritage Park

The Old Erie Canal Heritage Park opened in September 2016 at the site of Lock 52 in Port Byron. 

The fate of the project to rewater the Erie Canal is in flux nearly a year after Port Byron received a $418,300 state Regional Economic Development Council planning grant.

In December 2017, Port Byron was awarded the grant for the Erie Canal Rewatering and Trail Connections Project, which would also involve Mentz and Brutus, as the lead agency. The purpose of the grant is to plan and design the future rewatering of the Erie Canal as well as enhance the trail between Port Byron and Brutus. Ultimately, the hope is that the project would draw more tourists to the area. 

Back in May, however, the village of Port Byron unanimously voted to "not participate in the Rewatering of the Erie Canal Grant," minutes indicate.

Brutus Supervisor Hotaling said in October that the project is exciting to him because he can imagine a vibrant tourism industry growing from the project. With a paved trail wide enough for bikes, walking, rollerblading and strollers, he sees the potential for equipment rental shops in the towns or the village. Opportunities to kayak and canoe in the rewatered canal, he said, may also draw crowds and create for other business opportunities.

About seven years ago, Port Byron did a feasibility study to see if rewatering the canal was a possibility, Hotaling said, and the MRB Group engineering firm concluded that it was. 

"It's a vision for a rewatering project that could boost tourism and economic development in a way that I think many of us would find hard to quantify," said Sharon Lilla, who wrote the grant application and was hired by Brutus as a contractor to help administer the grant.

Port Byron Mayor Ron Wilson said Thursday that the board's decision to not be involved was largely due to the investment of money, time and potential flooding issues. 

Once a grant is awarded, agencies have five years to complete the projects. Budget-wise, this project would involve each municipality contributing roughly $15,000 per year for a three-year period, for a total contribution of about $47,000 from each municipality. 

In addition, the village experienced extensive flooding last winter, Wilson said, and he was under the impression that the grant was strictly for planning and wouldn't do anything to address the flooding issues. Wilson said people recently told him that flooding issues would be addressed, but he "was leery" because he didn't think that was in the original grant. 

"As a community, (we) wouldn't do anything to put another community in jeopardy," Hotaling said.   

Lilla confirmed that, since the beginning, the grant has included a $38,000 line item specifically to study the feasibility of rewatering the canal and the effects on the flood plane. The project would then be designed with an awareness of those impacts.  

The project was "really attractive" to the state, Lilla said, in part due to the partnership of the municipalities and how the project would span across municipal lines. If one of the communities drops out, she believes it could change the state's interest. The project is also attractive to the municipalities in many ways, she said, especially in that the idea is to create "a shovel-ready project" that is fully studied, designed and permitted. The thought is that the municipalities could then apply for additional grants to implement the rewatering, for example, and have a more competitive application compared to other municipalities.  

Although Port Byron has made it clear it doesn't want to participate financially or as the lead agency, Lilla said Friday, she doesn't consider the project "anywhere near in jeopardy."

"We're still on board," Mentz Supervisor Richard Nielens said Thursday. "I'm really hoping the village will turn around on this."

Hotaling said that he plans to meet with Lilla, Nielens, the Canal Corporation and hopefully Wilson in the second week of December. 

"I'm hoping we can resolve these concerns and get everybody back on board," Hotaling said, adding that everyone "really wants the (village) to reconsider." 

Wilson, however, didn't seem to think that Port Byron was open to reconsidering the project. He doesn't plan to attend the meeting, but said board members could if they wanted. 

"The board said 'no,'" Wilson said. "As far as I know that's it."  

Lilla said that in the event that Port Byron doesn't opt back in, the grant could be transferred to Brutus or Mentz as a lead agency. Only, for the project to proceed as approved, it would have to perform all the work originally included in the grant. So even if the village gave lead agency permission to Brutus, an option that's been discussed, the village would then benefit from enhancements at the cost of the others.

Mentz Historian Mike Riley, who's also part of the state's Canal Society, said that the project could offer "a major boost to the entire historic picture that we have here." He said that everyone knows about the Erie Canal and curiosity already draws people to the area. He thinks rewatering the canal would enhance the experience for tourism and locals alike.  

"There's communities all across the state that would bend over backwards for this," Riley said. "Here you have a ready-made and waiting attraction that's world–known — make use of it."

Riley said historically and economically he saw the project as a win, and it would be "foolish" for the municipalities not to take action on the opportunity while they have it. He also fears that, if they don't go forward with the grant, it could hurt the communities' ability to get grants in the future.

"What's your plan? if you're saying 'no' to everything, what happens to the community? Does it just fade away?" Riley said. 

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Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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