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LET'S WELCOME UNCLE SAM TO ERIE CANAL

Public interest is reviving in the potential for recreation and economic development along the 524-mile route of the old Erie Canal. Clinton's ditch, started in 1825, played a robust role in American history in the last century but was victimized by disuse and neglect in much of this one.

That started to change a few years ago when, in 1991, New Yorkers altered the State Constitution in ways that allowed for more rapid, flexible development of the canal as an attractive destination for pleasure boats, tourists and economic development along its banks.

The New York State Thruway Authority took control of the canal, a logical shift, in the mid-1990s. It advanced a 15-year development program, including gains for Western New York communities such as the Tonawandas and Lockport, that foresaw $146 million in public-private investment.

With the election of Gov. Pataki in 1994, authority interest in canal development slackened, unfortunately, though Albany seems finally to be more aware of it again.

But it's Washington help that is really the news now for the Erie Canal.

Andrew Cuomo, chief of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has spotted the potential. Last summer HUD allocated money for canal communities at about the same time that Crown Blue Line, a European firm, began a tentative program of renting boats to families who wanted to take waterway cruises along the canal. In Europe, Crown Blue advertised these cruises as a "voyage into history."

Now, more momentum. In Johnstown, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced $75 million in technical assistance for communities along the canal.

"Now we have three Cabinet Departments -- HUD, Agriculture and Interior -- working together . . . to benefit New York by turning our hopes for a revitalized Canal Corridor into a reality," Cuomo said on that occasion.

The Interior Department contribution isn't money, but a study that has triggered plans by Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, to introduce legislation in Congress next month designating the Canal Corridor as a National Heritage Area. This would pull the National Park Service into the planning of tourist attractions along the canal. That could also help in marketing the canal nationally.

Nor does it hurt at all that Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, is co-sponsoring the LaFalce legislation. This gives the legislation bipartisan support, and Quinn is a member of the House committee that monitors appropriations for transportation networks around the country.

The Erie Canal is a waterway with a famous name and a fabled history enlivened by song and legend. It's also a grand ride for boaters. It's a logical destination for visitors.

Uncle Sam's interest, along with his growing investment, is reassuring and welcome. We hope it will stir even more interest on the part of the Thruway Authority and the Pataki administration.

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