Senator Elizabeth O'C Little; James McKenna, Lake Placid CVB/Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism; Sen. Schumer; and Sen. GIllibrand stop for ice cream at regional favorite Donnelly's Ice Cream stand on Friday afternoon after a roundtable discussion in Lake Clear on Friday afternoon.
During a joint visit in Hamilton County late last week, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand spoke with community members and business leaders about the economic future of the North Country.
The two lawmakers hosted a roundtable discussion at the Long Lake Central School.
The general tone of the forum in Long Lake was upbeat, but urgent. Like other rural regions affected by the recession, the Adirondacks are feeling the pinch as federal and state dollars become scarcer.
The senators offered some advice for getting local economies on track – and their message was “get creative.”
Garry Douglas is the executive director for the North Country Chamber of Commerce. He was among a small group that took part in an informal discussion with the senators.
Douglas said that improving passenger rail service is crucial to the economic future of the park.
“As we talk more in this nation about the need to green our transportation systems, we need to start preparing now to create alternate transportation modes,” he said.
Douglas explained that refurbishing the Adirondack Scenic Railroad would help ensure “that the Adirondacks don’t become, as they virtually are already, 100-percent dependent on oil driven trucks and cars winding in and out of the Adirondacks on two-lane highways. That’s not sustainable going forward.”
Douglas said the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which extends from Utica to Lake Placid, is the last railroad that extends into the Central Adirondacks.
Douglas said he’s working on a creative way to improve it; he’s calling on the United States Army.
“The department of the Army has a railroad battalion that needs training missions,” he said. “And they will select projects around the country and come in and rehab and upgrade rail lines. There has been an active conversation going on with them to explore the opportunity and find out if they might have an interest, and they do.”
Schumer said he and Gillibrand would do what the could to help grease the wheels, including appealing to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, a North Country native.
“The railroad thing seems very exciting. John McHugh always tries to help the North Country,” Schumer said. “We worked closely together when he was in Congress and now Kirsten has taken his place on the armed services committee so we’ll have a good chance.”
But they acknowledged that it’s getting tougher to secure money for local projects.
That’s because of a Congressional moratorium on earmarks, the spending provisions that politicians traditionally tack on to federal bills for pet projects in their home states. Congress approved the moratorium earlier this year, but Schumer and Gillibrand came out against the ban.
Schumer said during the meeting in Long Lake that a complete ban on earmarks was the wrong approach.
“What an earmark is, is it allows us to designate money,” Schumer said. “We know more about what the North Country needs than some bureaucrat in Washington.”
The ban on earmarks means funding for local projects like expanding access to broadband and wireless Internet have been put on hold. And now lawmakers are appealing directly to state agencies to try to secure funding for projects.
During the discussion in Long Lake, several other “creative” ideas were floated by the senators, including volunteer-based strategies for extending broadband access to the homes of school-aged children.
In addition to being creative, many of the ideas that were discussed at the forum emphasized volunteerism and entrepreneurship, rather than reliance on government.