New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo participated in the Adirondack Challenge on Sunday, July 20 in Indian Lake in Hamilton County, an event designed to promote tourism and economic investment in the Adirondack Park. He's pictured here engaged in healthy competition before joining 20 other rafts in a trip down the confluence of the Indian Lake and Hudson rivers.
INDIAN LAKE — Behind a wall of white-speckled foam, a raft rounded a bend, and its blue-helmeted occupants came into view.
“Row faster,” said a paddler. “They’re gaining on us.”
Link, a river guide leading a team of reporters down the confluence of the Hudson and Indian Rivers, glanced upstream.
“Short forward strokes,” he said. “All together now.”
The raft glided over the Gooley Steps and picked up speed.
“Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” said the team captain.
The press corp stroked, passing a team of rivals, another media contingent, drifting idly in a dead zone.
Team Cuomo, a raft carrying New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sandra Lee, his companion, and their two children had sent the media off earlier from the launch point with a gauntlet of good-natured splashing, including helmets full of water from a gleeful administration official.
They were gaining, creeping uncomfortably forward down the rapids.
Team Essex County — a raft containing Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas, County Attorney Dan Manning and Wilmington and Elizabethtown Supervisors Randy Preston and Noel Merrihew — remained comfortably at a distance.
“I think we’ll have the winning advantage,” observed Preston before the launch. “The light will bounce off Douglas’ head into the Governor’s eyes.”
Reporters powered ahead under Grade 3 conditions, part of a flotilla of rafts, one released every minute.
Team Cuomo never caught up.
“You guys were strong,” Cuomo said afterward. “You did it.”
Cuomo was in Indian Lake for the 2014 Adirondack Challenge, the second installment of the event series — part tourism promotion, part legislative field trip — designed to draw attention to the Adirondacks by shuttling delegations from the state legislature up to the North Country and pitting them against each other in a bout of good-natured athletic events.
Paired with a public invite to area amenities, the goal was to boost the region’s profile across the state.
The three-mile rafting trip, coordinated by local river guides, took elected officials, including heavyweights like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Coalition Co-Leader Jeff Klein, through a slice of the 69,000 acres of recently acquired tracts from Finch Pruyn that will soon be available for public use.
Department of Conversation Region 5 Director Bob Stegeman said his agency is looking forward to crafting a Unit Management Plan that will balance ecology with the economy.
“It’s paramount in protecting our natural resources,” he said.
Link, who runs Square Eddy Expeditions, said the newly unlocked land might translate into increased opportunities for his business, the smallest rafting guide service in the area.
“It’s great to be part of this celebration,” he said.
The state-organized competitions, which also included fly-fishing, golfing and hiking, were friendly but streaked with undercurrents of intra-county North Country rivalries.
“Make sure your headline reads, ‘Franklin County Wins,’ said Franklin County Legislature Chairman Billy Jones. “We had super-soakers.”
Jones echoed other lawmakers in the importance of the Governor’s appearance.
“Any time the top official in the state comes to our region, it’s really a good thing,” he said.
“It’s fantastic,” added Hamilton County Chairman Bill Farber.
He said many seasonal visitors are unaware that rafting is a summertime activity, not limited only to the spring melting season.
“July’s a great time to do it, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Like the promotional boosts that came before, including a Winter Challenge this past March in Lake Placid, Cuomo invited lawmakers from across the state to participate.
Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow (89th, Mt. Vernon) said he was happy to be back in the Adirondacks after four months downstate.
“It’s still the most beautiful part of New York,” he said.
Pretlow said he didn’t realize how much work rafting entailed.
“I think we had the best time,” he said, referring to his team’s speed.
His crew was organized by legislative committees, said Assemblywoman Addie Russell (116th, Watertown), not by region.
“Four of the six of us were together last year,” she said.
“It’s a great resource,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages (22nd, Nassau County), who was also on their team. “People can go on a staycation right here in the Adirondacks.”
Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, the state agency tasked with promoting tourism across a growing swath of the Adirondacks, said the mingling of officials cannot be overstated, especially when it comes to exploring the possible emerging tourist opportunities, including the OK Slip Falls, the highest waterfall in the Adirondacks that will soon be open to visitation as a result of the aforementioned land deal.
“Sheldon Silver getting on a raft is big for us,” he said, something that would have been unimaginable 18 months ago.
“Growing up in Manhattan in the 1950s, ‘up the creek without a paddle’ had a different meaning,” said Silver at a luncheon following the rafting excursion at Gore Mountain in North Creek.
He called the Adirondacks one of the few places in the country that is both beautiful and inspiring.
“Everyone should experience the Adirondacks in their lifetime,” he said while exhorting North Country lawmakers to reciprocate by traveling to New York City, his stomping ground.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, the North Country leader who represents much of the North Country alongside Janet Duprey, the 115th District Assemblywoman from Peru, said the trip also served a practical purpose.
“There’s a great value in our fellow lawmakers knowing what we have while debating local issues,” he said. “It’s tremendous.”
Hugh Farley, the state senator representing Indian Lake, said that as someone who grew up in the area, it’s an honor to see the state’s highest elected official step forward.
“It’s a wonderful infusion of attention to the Adirondacks,” he said.
John Davidson, owner of the Glens Falls-based brewery Davidson Bros. Brewing Company, said Cuomo’s policies have been helpful in accelerating the craft beer industry in the region, namely through a community block development grant that allowed his company to start selling their product in cans and an unraveling of arcane policy that was still on the books.
“He’s been a huge promoter of our industry,” he said. “He’s really helped change some of the legislation to our benefit.”
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who participated with his family, said it was a real privilege to be in the Adirondacks.
“We share the best lake in the country,” he said. “This is an opportunity for both [states] to show what a valuable jewel this is.”
Shumlin said New York’s North Country reminded him of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
“People here are the most hardworking, rugged and industrious people in the world,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone else who can create opportunity out of such tough circumstances.”
In comments introducing the Governor, State Senator Betty Little, Chairwoman of the Tourism Committee, upgraded Cuomo’s designation from what she had previously deemed the area’s “Number One Tourist” to the “number one tourism promoter, a hero and an honorary North Country member, a person who is truly for us in Albany.”
Little said the Governor has been tireless in urging millions of tourists from New York City to visit the Adirondacks.
“It’s not far of a drive, a wonderful challenge,” she said. “Tourism is our business. The more people come, the more business will prosper and continue to grow.”
The senator, who represents much of the Adirondack Park, encouraged state residents to relocate their small businesses to the North Country and cited the importance of high speed internet access and broadband.
“We need more year-long residents to come to our community to make a sustainable economy,” she said. “Governor Cuomo knows what our needs are.”
Little also cited the importance of local agriculture and food production.
New York, she said, ranks second in maple syrup production.
“Let’s get to number one,” she said.
Other lawmakers, including Senator Andrea-Stewart Cousins (35th, Westchester) and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein (Bronx/Westchester) shared similar sentiments.
“This is what makes sense,” Klein said. “There’s a disconnect between upstate and downstate, and this should have happened a long time ago — we’re one New York.”
Klein, who leads a group of breakaway Democrats who have aligned with Republicans in the state senate, couldn’t resist alluding to the potential deal with the Governor earlier this week to wrangle them back into Democratic control.
Last year, he said, Republicans and Democrats were put in the same raft.
“Maybe next year, they’ll be a difference in how the rafts are distributed,” he said.
Cuomo called Shumlin a good friend and neighbor and extolled both his record as the state’s commander and chief and advocate for the North Country and urged lawmakers to come together.
Each region has its own personality, he said. The state isn’t homogenous and representatives can’t be effective unless they are receptive to each others’ needs.
“To have everyone together is important,” he said. “It shows we’re committed to one state, the state of New York.”
The Governor, echoing his speech at the Winter Challenge to lawmakers and dignitaries in March, stoked similar fires, recalling the emergent spirit, energy and vitality of the region and circled back to jobs and exposure as a lynchpin to the North Country’s success.
“If we create jobs, everything else will take care of itself,” he said.
He ticked off a series of statistics: A $40 million advertising campaign led to $4 billion in revenue for the state, a new record, he said. Eight million new tourists. Four-hundred and sixty thousand new jobs since the end of the recession; $2 billion tax surplus in state coffers, four years of balanced and on-time budgets… a recent boost in the state’s credit rating that has led to its highest ranking yet.
“We’ve broken every record established,” he said. “And this is just the beginning — you ain’t seen nothing yet. The North Country is coming back big time.”
Following the event, his office said in a statement, New York’s tourism industry generated direct spending of $59.2 billion in 2013, producing an estimated $7.5 billion in state and local taxes.
As the fourth largest employment sector in New York, the tourism industry also added 28,500 jobs in 2013 for a total of 832,500 jobs and generated more than $17.96 billion in wages, said the statement.
It’s unclear what the exact breakdowns are for the Adirondacks.
And of course, there were the awards, most of which were backslapping references to the clubby climate in Albany.
Little was given the “Little Raft That Could,” and Silver was recognized as the “Best Rapids Negotiation Guide.”
Cuomo and Shumlin apparently tied heading down the rapids, with both clocking in at 19 minutes, 20 seconds.
Silver, who had previously lauded Cuomo as “someone who feels comfortable here in the Adirondacks as in the concrete canyons of New York,” presented him with a red flotation device.
“Our friends in the Assembly will always be there for you,” he said.
Shumlin received a crystal apple; Indian Lake Supervisor Brian Wells and Indian Lake Central Schools Principal David Snide received a flurry of recognition and plaques.
Moriah Supervisor Thom Scozzafava rode into town on a chopper with Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee, St. Armand’s Charles Whitson, part of a delegation of 17 that roared in from Essex County.
They were given an award alongside Assemblyman Sam Roberts (119th, Syracuse).
Scozzafava, ordinarily outspoken, seemed tongue-tied.
“The food is good,” he said.
Outside Indian Lake Central School, the staging area for the day’s events, Bruce Mitchell, a local resident tasked with shuttling dignitaries to and from the rapids, remained skeptical on the effects of such a star-powered event in this small community, the second in as many years.
“We still don’t have a grocery store,” he shrugged.