(Editor's note: This is Part Two of a five-part series on the current status of the Visitor Interpretive Centers (VICs), which were operated by the Adirondack Park Agency from 1989 to 2010.)
PAUL SMITHS - May 24, 1989 was such an important date that Gov. Mario Cuomo opened the Adirondack Park Agency's first Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) himself, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a speech in front of hundreds of onlookers and swarms of blackflies.
After a ride from Paul Smith's College on a restored 19th century stagecoach with college President David Chamberlain, the governor sealed a 100-year "environmental time capsule," filled with artifacts from North Country schoolchildren. The mystery objects are still there - encased in concrete and stone - underneath the "Tree of Peace," a white pine tree, planted by Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp on opening day.
Having the governor in town was a big deal, and Paul Smiths resident Jack Burke has fond memories of that day.
"I remember shaking his hand," Burke said with a smile.
Burke is now the vice president of business and finance for Paul Smith's College, which took over the building from the APA on Jan. 1. The college has always had a role in the property, leasing the land to the Agency and using the trails and building for student projects. In May, Burke will retire and oversee the trail system, becoming what his friends jokingly call the "trail czar." On Jan. 28, he met with the college's director of communications, Ken Aaron, and director of human resources, Susan Sweeney, in the building's Great Room. With a view of snow-covered Heron Marsh and St. Regis Mountain at his back, Burke and company spoke about the history of the VIC and the college's plans for re-inventing the center.
Ultimately, the college's goal is to expand events, programs, exhibits and the trail system, make considerable improvements, and find creative ways to pay for it all.
Vision for the VIC
"We want this to be a place where people come over and over again," said Sweeney, who is a member of the VIC Transition Steering Committee.
Steering Committee members have adopted four guiding principles to help them plan public and private usage of the Paul Smiths VIC: 1.) linkage to academic mission; 2.) public access; 3.) collaboration with arts and cultural organizations; and 4.) entrepreneurial opportunities. (See pullout box).
When making plans, "We are always coming back to our four guiding principles," Sweeney said. "It keeps us focused."
Steering Committee members see the college's takeover of the VIC as an opportunity to do something bigger and better than the APA did. Throughout the APA's ownership of the VIC, many thought there was room for improvement.
"It never met its potential under state operation," said Paul Smith's College President John Mills, sitting in the Great Room during the Jan. 29 Chili Ski Tasting event. "Our goal is to reach that potential."
Mills and his staff members are excited about running the VIC and keeping it open to the public. At the same time, they are being honest about the challenges they face.
"Our No. 1 challenge is paying for it," Mills said. "They (the public) don't realize how much it costs just to keep the lights on."
Mills said he wasn't sure how much money it will take to operate the VIC, adding that there are more costs associated with the VIC acquisition than most people realize. The college, for example, has already hired one full-time VIC maintenance person and purchased a new four-wheeler to maintain the trails, and it will spend about $20,000 to fix the roof.
To help the college monitor the financial health of the building, the VIC will be set up as a free-standing auxiliary enterprise. In order for the college to reach the building's potential, it will take a business model that requires a mix of rental income, revenue from programs and events, and a lot of community support. There have already been requests for weddings and parties at the VIC, and Burke is planning some trail-running competitions, such as the Jenkins Mountain Scramble and Half Marathon in June.
College officials want to reassure people that they are doing their best to re-open the VIC building as soon as possible. But they don't want to make mistakes by rushing their plans.
"Our aim is to make good, thoughtful decisions up front," Sweeney said. "Just give us a little time."
The guiding principles
Members of the VIC Transition Steering Committee have adopted four guiding principles to help them plan public and private usage of the Paul Smiths VIC. They are:
Academic mission: The college is encouraging faculty to consider the VIC building and property when planning their lessons for coming semesters. Students have traditionally spent class time at the VIC since 1989, mostly in outdoor programs such as forestry and recreation. In the future, though, culinary arts students will practice their craft in the new VIC kitchen, which is planned to be built in the former office of the APA's artist/designer. This facility will be useful during special events. Hospitality students will get hands-on experience welcoming the public to the VIC by training volunteers at the front desk. And the Draft Horse Club will help maintain the trail system a couple times a year, especially in the spring by removing blown-down trees from winter storms.
Public access: The hiking trails have remained open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing since the college re-acquired the property on Jan. 1, and the 24,500-square-foot building is expected to be open to the public sometime in the spring. College officials want to have exhibits, programs and events, such as the APA did for almost 22 years. The VIC friends' group - the Adirondack Park Institute - will continue to keep its office at the VIC and fund, organize and implement public programming, such as the Butterfly House, which opened in 1993. Public information will be available for visitors, as will the rest rooms and public spaces. And the college plans to install free Wi-Fi for the public.
Arts collaboration: The Adirondack Center for Writing will move from the college's administration building to the VIC this year and will be able to present programs in the theater. Partnerships with other arts and cultural groups will be fostered to offer programs and exhibits.
Entrepreneurial opportunities: The college will work with small business owners who want to either rent space at the VIC or offer programs there. For example, MAC's Canoe Livery owner Brian McDonnell will be offering outdoor recreation activities for his customers on the VIC property.