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Canal management plan gets OK after six years

After six years and more than $550,000 in state spending, a commission's plan to market the western end of the Erie Canal and try to improve economic conditions in canal communities has been approved.

The Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor Planning Commission's management plan was approved in September by State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, but Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed one bill to begin its implementation and has yet to act on another, even though it was passed by both houses of the State Legislature in June.

The commission, whose mandate covered Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Monroe and Wayne counties, was created by a 1999 state law. Pataki, state legislators and county officials appointed the 18-member panel, which held its first meeting in January 2001.

The group's chairman, Michael Heftka, said several of the members are interested in being named to a steering committee that would spearhead the implementation of the plan.

Some of the plan's ideas include a series of interpretive centers for tourists; a group of economic development "circuit riders" to help canal towns integrate their main streets into canal tourism; and promotion plans predicted to draw 135,000 new visitors to the five counties, producing an economic impact of more than $31 million.

The cost of full implementation is not estimated in the document, because it's not known how much of the load will be carried by the nongovernmental partners.

Heftka said the plan makes it clear that the planning and zoning authority of the 46 canalside communities in the five counties will not be reduced.

Since the corridor was set up, the canal promotion picture has changed.

Pataki has proposed an Erie Canal Greenway to extend the full length of the canal as a link between the existing Hudson River Greenway and the Niagara River Greenway, which is in its formative stages.

Pataki named Carmella R. Mantello, former chief of the Hudson River Greenway, as director of the New York State Canal Corp. earlier this year and directed her to get the canal greenway moving.

Mantello said she views the Western Erie Canal Heritage Corridor as a local effort that will be integrated into the larger greenway plan.

Heftka, executive director of the Wyoming County Industrial Development Agency, said he has met with Mantello and is satisfied she intends to help carry out many of the corridor commission's plans.

He said he expects most of the ideas to be carried out "in some way, shape or form" by the state or by the overlapping National Erie Canalway Commission, a federal panel.

The state panel's document calls for creation of a Western Erie Canal Partnership to act as a catalyst for the implementation of the document. The partners would include existing state, local and private agencies.

However, Pataki has yet to sign the bill creating the partnership, which was passed in June under the sponsorship of State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane. Maziarz said he checked with the governor's office while he was last in Albany on Nov. 29, and there was no indication of when there would be action.

But Heftka said that Peg Churchill, a commission member from Wayne County, met that same day in Albany with a counsel to the governor's office and a Maziarz staffer to answer questions about the implementation plan.

Mantello said, "We're a little concerned about the public benefit corporation, because public benefit corporations aren't in the best of favor with state legislators right now."

Pataki's reluctance to create such a corporation was a key reason for his May 31 veto of the first version of the bill. Also, he noted that Castro hadn't approved the plan at that point.

"Moreover, prior to moving forward, we must ensure that the plan is consistent with the overall vision for revitalizing the canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River," the veto message said.

The new bill is virtually identical and sets up the partnership as a public benefit corporation with a 15-member board. Two members would be chosen by the legislatures of each of the five counties; Pataki, the Assembly speaker and minority leader and the State Senate majority and minority leaders would have one choice each. The partnership would expire in July 2016 unless renewed.

"The management plan doesn't say you have to create something new to carry out every recommendation," Heftka said. "What it did was create some [proposed] programs that would help the canal and canal communities."

The commission and its subcommittees held more than 300 public meetings in the five counties, and each county legislature approved the plan.

"I expected there to be 40 million rewrites of this thing," Heftka said, "but it went through because of the number of public hearings we held."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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