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Efforts are under way to make the canal systems in New York State a major contributor to the state's economy.

But to make the canals attractive to tourists, preventive maintenance and extensive rehabilitation of canal properties will be required, according to Keith Giles, director and chief engineer for the New York State Canal Corp.

Giles spoke Saturday at opening of a two-day conference on the development of the state's canal system at the Best Western Inn.

The conference drew more than 150 delegates from throughout the state. It featured speakers and workshops on the preservation, revitalization and promotion of the state's 525 miles of canals, including the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca and Montour Falls canals and 1,800 pieces of canal property including 57 locks, 102 dams, reservoirs and bridges.

"All these require maintenance," Giles said. "Our 1996 budget included $30 million for operation and maintenance and $20 million for rehabilitation."

He said the 1997 budget will be reduced by $5 million due to cuts in state and federal funding. He said the corporation receives up to $8 million in federal assistance.

Giles said his corporation has developed a six-year capital improvement program that will cost up to $150 million. Most of it is targeted for repair work, but an additional $32 million will be needed for revitalization work such as the enhancement of the Tonawanda waterfront.

"If we can do this," Giles said, "we can make the canal systems a better economic contributor to New York State. We could provide access to services, things to do, and thus become a tourist attraction much greater than it is today."

Ann Luby, director of the New York State Recreationway Commission, noted that a $32.3 million revitalization program will begin next year to upgrade seven harbor sites along the canal systems.

The first of these will be the Tonawanda-North Tonawanda harbor.

Ms. Luby said the harbor developments are preludes to private investments at the sites.

"Completion of these projects," she said, "will raise investor confidence in the future of the canal system."

She said private investors will be asked to construct marinas, charter and tour boat operations as well as tourism and hospitality services.

Future developments will occur at Waterford, Rochester, Seneca Falls, Oswego, Little Falls and Whitehall.

Also addressing the conference was J. Winthrop Aldrich, deputy commissioner of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Aldrich said his office wants to be an integral part of any development along the canal systems. He said cooperation between the parks and canal officials is necessary if the full tourism potential is to be reached.

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