Saratoga-North Creek Railway at the North Creek train station
Projects along the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor — from Saratoga Springs to North Creek — will get a financial boost this year after receiving a grant from the New York State Regional Economic Development Council initiative.
This latest round of funding will help Warren County planners bolster their marketing efforts along the Hudson River and former Delaware & Hudson Railway corridor by investing in infrastructure projects in local communities.
“What we’re trying to do is just showcase a way of life,” said Wayne LaMothe, director of the Warren County Department of Planning and Community Development, which is in charge of promoting the 62-mile corridor to the traveling public.
On Dec. 19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that $738 million will be released for economic development projects throughout the state via
the Regional Economic Development Councils. And Warren County is on tap to receive $308,000 for implementation of the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor Action Plan.
Project components include: design of a new train station in the village of Corinth; restoration of the historic bandstand in the town of Warrensburg; and design of a new waterfront park on a 3.5-acre former Brownfield site in the town of Warrensburg.
Established in 1999 as a way to boost tourism, the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor was designed to highlight the attractions, events, outdoor activities and businesses along the railroad corridor between Saratoga Springs and North Creek. The railway spans two counties — Saratoga and Warren — and follows the Hudson River north as it did when it first opened as Thomas Durant’s Adirondack Railroad in 1871.
“We looked at what was common to all the communities that share the rail corridor,” LaMothe said. “The rail line — and the river — was the pathway into the Adirondacks. And the Adirondack Park was the first area in the country that was officially set aside as wilderness by a legislative action. Hence, we came up with the name the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor.”
The First Wilderness Heritage Corridor Action Plan is a revitalization plan under the aegis of the New York State Department of State’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. It includes the Warren County towns of Johnsburg, Thurman, Stony Creek, Warrensburg, and Lake Luzerne and the Saratoga County towns of Hadley and Corinth.
When it’s fully implemented, LaMothe said the goal is to extend the corridor another 30 miles north of North Creek to the Tahawus mine in the Essex County town of Newcomb.
There are currently two aspects of implementing the First Wilderness experience. First Warren County planners have to answer the question, “What can people do when they come here?”
“Those activities are more community driven — events, skiing, recreational opportunities, business opportunities, etc.,” LaMothe said.
Then there is the physical side — the infrastructure — such as improving streetscapes, upgrading or building train stations, etc.
LaMothe approaches the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor project with one goal in mind: enhancing the economic opportunities by creating a corridorwide tourism experience.
“When it all comes down to it, it’s an economic development activity,” LaMothe said. “There’s no other reason for it. It is to enhance what the community has A) for itself and B) for the tourists that come here. Hopefully it’s a quality experience for somebody and through word of mouth and promotions, other people will come here.”
Before promoting the corridor, the region must give travelers good reasons to get off the train in communities along the way.
“That’s why we’re looking at building the infrastructure — the better sidewalks, the better signage, hiking trails, the things the public sector can do that makes a community more inviting,” LaMothe said. “But it’s really the business community that needs to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented both by the investment in public infrastructure and the investment by the rail company into their operations.”
In 2013, revitalizing the infrastructure in communities along the corridor will continue to keep LaMothe and his staff busy.
“At last count, I believe I have 21 projects going on in the corridor from Corinth up to North Creek,” LaMothe said. “Enclosing train stations, designing new sites at the train station complex in Corinth. We’ve got a multitude of projects both big and small throughout the corridor.”
There are two streetscape projects that will be seeing some progress this year: one in Chestertown and one in North Creek.
“We would hope to see construction begin in the spring, and we would like to do the design work over the winter,” LaMothe said of the North Creek streetscape project.
During an interview in early December, LaMothe said he was still waiting to get the contract approved by the New York State Department of State’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. The town fo Johnsburg is ready to enter into a design contract with the LA Group, and the state has to approve the document.
“The problem that we’ve run into is Hurricane Sandy has diverted all the staff resources left at the state and all these different agencies toward disaster relief,” LaMothe said. “And that’s how it should be, don’t get me wrong. But that has put getting the final contract document approved and signed so that the consultants can get into the community and actually start the design elements.”
Thanks to the area’s rich heritage, there are many stories to tell along the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor. Native Americans first used this region as hunting grounds. Then the French, English and Americans fought over it during the colonial wars. Mining, logging and tannery companies used much of its natural resources to build a nation. The state of New York decided to protect it under the state constitution as part of the Adirondack Park. And now it’s one of America’s premier tourist destinations.
Yet, in order to be successful, the corridor needs to be promoted a whole, not by individual communities on a town-by-town basis.
“The way for this to work is each town has to complement each other and not compete,” LaMothe said. “If everybody did the same thing, there’s only so many that come here, and if everybody had a golf course or everybody had a ski hill, there wouldn't be enough business for everybody.”
Tourism promotion is designed on a regional approach by looking at the strengths of each community and designing day trips or vacations based on those activities. For example, Stony Creek golf course on the rail line; Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg offers a different experience than Gore Mountain; North Creek has a vibrant downtown, cross-country skiing at Garnet Hill Lodge, downhill skiing at Gore, and whitewater rafting on the Hudson River; and the Lake Luzerne-Hadley region has horseback riding at the old dude ranches.
While the former tourist train — the Upper Hudson River Railroad (1999-2010) — offered excursions between North Creek and Riparius, it never had the connection to Saratoga Springs. And that helped burst the bubble of early optimism in the southern end of the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor, according to LaMothe. Since Iowa Pacific Holdings opened the Saratoga & North Creek Railway in July 2011, things have been much different.
“What Iowa Pacific has brought to the table is they have capital to invest, they are railroad people, they know how to run a railroad, and they know how to market and promote,” LaMothe said. “Now Iowa Pacific comes in, we have the connection to Saratoga, and all of a sudden in the other communities along the corridor it's, ‘OK, something is finally going to happen.’”
Warren County set up a website to help promote the corridor — www.firstwilderness.com — and assigned the promotional duties to a staffer in the Planning Department, Pam Morin. She is trying to be the central nervous system for promoting the corridor and connecting all the different entities, and it’s a challenging job. But LaMothe said businesses and communities can help with promotion if they have an effective communication plan.
“If people don’t go through the chamber or they don’t go through some regional entity, we don’t know about it and so we can’t put it on the First Wilderness Corridor site, and we can’t work with them to help promote it,” LaMothe said. “Cross promotion is the way we’re going to survive here.”
20 years of planning
Countless hours of planning and millions of taxpayer dollars have gone into revitalizing the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor. And it’s been 20 years in the making.
“The genesis of all this started in 1992 with the North Creek Action Plan,” LaMothe said. “And from that, a vision came out of North Creek. And in that action plan was one line that said, ‘If the rail line ever becomes available, the town or county should consider purchasing it.’ That one statement, in a plan that was adopted by the community, is what Congressman Jerry Solomon used to get the money for the acquisition and the initial rehab of the line.”
The Johnsburg Town Board adopted the North Creek plan in 1993, when the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway still owned the old Delaware & Hudson Railway. That was the same year CP deeded the North Creek train station to the North Creek Railway Depot Preservation Association.
In 1995, Warren County purchased the 40-mile right-of-way for the former Adirondack Branch of the D&H, extending from the town of Corinth in Saratoga County to North Creek.
In 1997, LaMothe was at a national planning conference in Seattle where they talked about the National Heritage Rivers Program.
“And we said that’s a concept that we can fit here, with the unifying characteristic of the river and the rail line that links all the communities together,” LaMothe said.
Out of that, Warren County had a consultant help with a planning study for the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor. And since 1999, the county has received a lot of money from the Department of State to further the revitalization activity and infrastructure development.
“That little North Creek Action Plan has grown,” LaMothe said. “It was a good investment.”
In 2011, the Saratoga & North Creek Railway signed a lease agreement with Warren County for the right-of-way in the corridor and now offers passenger service from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. In 2013, the company plans to begin freight service along the tracks from the old Tahawus titanium mine in the town of Newcomb and the Barton Garnet Mine in North River.