(Editor's note: This is Part One 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 - Fresh snow blanketed tree branches in the forest, the sun glowed in the blue sky, and temperatures hovered around 20 degrees. Ski event coordinators dream of conditions like these, and Saturday, Jan. 29 had all the makings for a day filled with family fun.
Yet, as the Chili Ski Tasting event got under way at the Paul Smiths VIC, everyone was a little uneasy.
It was the same building, but with a new owner. Paul Smith's College officials didn't know what to expect, and, as they searched for light switches and electrical outlets in their newest building, they had one big question on their minds: Would people come and enjoy themselves like they had for the past decade of ski festivals when the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) owned the building?
By early afternoon, their question had been answered, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief as dozens of families did indeed come and enjoy themselves, eating chili and cake made by culinary arts students, skiing and snowshoeing on the vast trail system groomed the day before, and taking sleigh rides with two of the college's draft horses. The smiles were proof that people had a good time, and the event -aimed at showing everyone that the trails are still open to the public - was deemed a success.
While this was the first event since Paul Smith's College took over the 24,500-square-foot building from the APA on Jan. 1, the transformation from a Visitor Interpretive Center to the college's version of the VIC is still in its formative stages. Officials at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), too, are still trying to define the role of their new Adirondack Interpretive Center (AIC) in Newcomb, formerly known as the Newcomb VIC, after taking over the 6,000-square-foot building on July 1, 2010 and the public programming on Jan. 1.
After all, it was only a year ago when then Gov. David Paterson announced in his budget address that the APA would be closing the VICs in Paul Smiths and Newcomb to save over $500,000 annually and help the state close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap. And, as 2010 progressed and the VIC Transition Steering Committee was formulating ideas to keep the two centers open to the public, in one form or another, both colleges had less than a year to come up with solid plans that would fund the buildings' operations.
For many, Jan. 29 was an emotional day at the Chili Ski Tasting event in Paul Smiths. Event organizers from the college and the VIC friends group, the Adirondack Park Institute, were hoping for a warm public reception. The longtime volunteers who had once assisted APA staff with environmental education programs and special events were now working with a new owner they don't know very well. Some former VIC staff and current APA staff were enjoying the festivities, witnessing history in the making while reminiscing about the many memories they had made there. And the public was simply curious.
Susan Sweeney, Paul Smith's College director of human resources, helped organize the Jan. 29 event and was taking photographs during the day. She serves on the VIC Transition Steering Committee and has made many memories herself at the VIC.
"There is so much nostalgia here," Sweeney said in an interview the day before the event. "We want to take what is here, modify it and improve it."
This year, Paul Smith's College will begin transforming the VIC from an interpretive center into a public building with exhibits, programs and new tenants, including the Adirondack Center for Writing, which has outgrown its office space in the college's administration building. In addition to environmental education, there will be an emphasis on outdoor recreation and the arts. And new trail events will be held on the VIC property, which was initially a 2,885-acre preserve owned by the college and leased by the APA. A new lease agreement in 2009 reduced the preserve to about 1,400 acres. The college owns more than 14,000 acres.
The chili, hot drinks and cake made for a party-type atmosphere on Jan. 29. It showed that the building was slowly coming back to life again after sitting empty, save for a few maintenance workers, for 28 days. APA staff had closed the building to the public at the end of the day on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010 - Columbus Day weekend - so they could pack up and move out before literally giving it to Paul Smith's College on Jan. 1. The trails remained open throughout the transition.
In Newcomb, the two-phase transition began in June 2010 and finished six months later. Originally, the Paul Smiths and Newcomb buildings were expected to be handed over to new owners on Jan. 1, 2011, with the APA staff given that long to keep their jobs; however, since the SUNY-ESF fiscal year begins on July 1, it was decided to give the building to the college - "turn-key" style - at that time. Therefore, June 30 was the last day the APA owned the Newcomb VIC. APA staff continued to offer public programming there until Dec. 30, their last day of APA employment. SUNY-ESF took over programming on Jan. 1 at the newly named Adirondack Interpretive Center, which sits on 236 acres in the college-managed Huntington Wildlife Forest.
Like his colleagues at Paul Smith's College, Paul Hai, program coordinator at SUNY-ESF's AIC and nearby Adirondack Ecological Center, is also trying to reassure the public that the Newcomb building is still open. And while the mission will change, with interpretation of the Adirondack Park's natural and cultural resources as a focus rather than visitor services, the college has made it clear that there are many years of public education left at the Newcomb facility.
"We are here for the long haul," said Hai, who has worked closely with VIC staff on programs since moving to Newcomb in 2008. "The APA made a tough choice ... We're really hoping we can lessen that blow by keeping this center open."
In all, the APA cut eight full-time staff positions at the VICs in December, four at each facility. Two employees from the Paul Smiths building were able to transfer to APA headquarters in Ray Brook.
Star Lake naturalist Peter O'Shea has known many of the APA employees since he began leading trail walks at the Paul Smiths VIC when it opened in 1989 and the Newcomb VIC when it opened in 1990. He was mingling with some of his friends at the Chili Ski Tasting event after taking a snowshoe trip on the Boreal Life Trail. He saw tracks of a river otter, fisher, red fox, two coyotes, half a dozen white-tailed deer, and a snowshoe hare. A former volunteer, he was also one of the curious visitors.
"It's a wonderful day," O'Shea said, looking around at the lobby full of people. "They (Paul Smith's College) have made a wonderful start."
Although the Paul Smiths VIC and Newcomb AIC are still open to the public, neither facility will continue their former role as official New York State visitor centers, welcoming the traveling public to the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park. Annual visitation has been between 20,000 and 30,000 at the Newcomb center and between 60,000 and 75,000 at the Paul Smiths center.
"The Adirondack Park is now without an official visitor center," O'Shea said. "So there is something that is missing and the state will have to rectify."
The Newcomb AIC building is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, and the trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. Call (518) 582-2000 for more information. Admission is free. The Paul Smith's College VIC building is not currently open to the public; however, the trails are open daily from dawn to dusk and may be used for free. Call the PSC Conference Services Department at 327-6430 for more information.