(Editor's note: This is Part Five of a five-part series on the current status of the Visitor Interpretive Centers, which were operated by the Adirondack Park Agency from 1989 to 2010.)
RAY BROOK - When the state Adirondack Park Agency (APA) transferred ownership of its Visitor Interpretive Centers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb to two colleges on Jan. 1, not everyone escaped the transition unscathed. For the most part, however, many of the key players say there is a happy ending to this story.
During this five-part series, officials interviewed for these stories were asked one final question: "Who were the winners and losers of this transition?"
Answers were recorded from Paul Smith's College, which now owns and operates the Paul Smiths VIC; the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), which now owns and operates the Adirondack Interpretive Center (formerly known as the Newcomb VIC); the Adirondack Park Institute, the VIC friends group since 1989; the Adirondack Center for Writing, a new tenant at the Paul Smiths VIC; and the APA.
First the basics.
Government downsizing: Due to a multi-billion-dollar New York state budget deficit, the APA dissolved its Interpretive Programs Division and successfully transferred ownership of its Visitor Interpretive Centers to two colleges by Jan. 1, 2011. The move was expected to save the APA about $500,000 a year.
Staff: During the 11-month process, four jobs were cut at each facility. Two VIC employees transferred to the APA headquarters in Ray Brook (one of them "bumped" another employee out of his position). Since then, Paul Smith's College has hired a full-time maintenance person for the VIC, and SUNY-ESF will hire one full-time staffer (a two-year position) at the AIC. More seasonal jobs are expected to be created at each facility.
Facilities and programs: The trails remain open at both centers. The Newcomb building is still open to the public, and the Paul Smiths building is expected to be open to the public sometime this year. The API will continue to offer environmental education programs for schools and the public at each building.
"There's no way to sugarcoat it," said Paul Hai, program coordinator for SUNY-ESF's Adirondack Ecological Center and Northern Forest Institute, "The wonderful people who were doing the work for the Adirondack Park Agency at the VICs."
Hai said the out-of-work employees lost in the short-term and he hopes they will soon move on to other jobs. He had worked closely with these employees since 2003 and speaks highly of the APA and the staff who built the centers and operated them for more than 20 years.
"These places exist because of the people who did the work here," Hai said. "What those guys created at the interpretive centers is a legacy, and they should be proud of it."
At the same time, as New York agencies dealt with budget shortfalls by closing environmental education centers around the state in 2010, "environmental education lost," he said, noting the workforce reduction at APA and Department of Environmental Conservation environmental education centers. "The APA made a tough choice ... We're really hoping we can lessen that blow by keeping this center open."
API Executive Director Dan Fitts agrees with Hai about the loss to employees and the legacy they created. He calls the APA's decision "understandable," yet he laments the loss to taxpayers who once learned about the wonders of the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park from state workers.
"I sure think the state of New York loses by not being able to fund those areas," Fitts said. "It was real nice for the state to tell the story of the Adirondack Park."
While Paul Smith's College Communications Director Ken Aaron recognizes that the transition created hardship for the people who lost jobs, he sees the state of New York as a winner because the mission of the VICs will be continued under the college's watch.
"There are no losers," Aaron said, adding that if the building had gone dark, the story would have been different. "But we stepped forward and that didn't happen."
All people interviewed for this story agreed that the communities of Paul Smiths (town of Brighton) and Newcomb both come out as clear winners because the facilities will be open to the public. That means roughly 100,000 visitors will still be making their way to these towns annually (about 70,000 at Paul Smiths and 30,000 at Newcomb), staying at inns, eating at restaurants and shopping. It was a good deal for the local economy, they said.
"The citizens of the Adirondacks are winners," Hai said, referring to the residents' use of the centers as an educational and recreational resource.
More broadly, the educational community in the region is a winner, according to Hai, organizations that interpret the environmental and cultural history of the Adirondack Park and partner with SUNY-ESF in Newcomb, including the Wild Center, Wildlife Conservation Society, Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Museum. And the citizens of New York are winners, he said.
"Ultimately, New Yorkers paid for the structure," Hai said. "That investment didn't go away."
Fitts - who also sits on the SUNY-ESF Board of Trustees - said both colleges come out winners, as these public facilities are unique assets for their educational programs.
Paul Smith's College officials concur. Their students will benefit, as will the greater Tri-Lakes community, according to college Director of Human Resources Susan Sweeney.
"This once again gives us the opportunity to say we are good neighbors," Sweeney said.
Perhaps the biggest winner is the Adirondack Center for Writing, which will be moving from the Paul Smith's College administration building to the VIC this spring. The move will give the not-for-profit group the opportunity to be more accessible and use the theater space for programs, such as the April 19 program with celebrated author Sapphire, according to ACW Executive Director Nathalie Thill.
"We really lucked out as a community. This is a gorgeous building with so much potential," Thill said. "This will be transformative for our organization."
APA answers questions
(The following answers were supplied in writing by Adirondack Park Agency Director of Communications Keith McKeever.)
What is the APA's legacy of the VICs, building a foundation for the future of the VICs under new ownership?
APA legacy is more than two decades of the VICs showcasing the beauty and history of New York State's Adirondack Park to approximately one-and-a-half million visitors. Concurrently, the VICs provided environmental programs and services, which reached a multi-generational audience that included over 75,000 school children. The extensive trail systems combined with innovative interpretive services fostered a greater public appreciation for the value of the Adirondack Park to all New Yorkers and citizens of the world.
What is the APA most proud of in regard to its Interpretive Programs Division and operation of the VICs from 1989 to 2010?
We are most proud of the VIC staff for their years of engagement in educating generations of Park stewards and for their outstanding commitment to increasing environmental awareness. Their dedication and commitment enhanced the public's awareness of Park resources and the Agency's role in their protection. Staff played an important part in interpreting the Park Agency's responsibilities for the public and private lands of the Park.
Now that the APA doesn't have operate to the VICs, how has that benefitted the APA so far? Have you seen a direct financial impact in January? How much money will it save per year?
The Agency successfully transitioned the VICs and met all mandated budget saving mandates. This helped contribute to the overall state goal of reducing state spending. The Agency did not have to cut back additional staff or resources in its regulatory and legal responsibilities and continues to effectively manage a demanding and complex workload.
In regard to the VIC transition from the APA to the new owners, who are the winners here?
The Agency's handling of this downsizing is being discussed as a model for other state agencies. Therefore, we see the outcome as a win-win. Working in partnership with SUNY-ESF and Paul Smith's College, we were able to navigate through complex legal requirements and reach an outcome that resulted in continued public access to outstanding trail systems, nature viewing opportunities and environmental programming.
Who are the losers?
A couple of people have said that the APA and New York state government are "losers" in this VIC transition because the APA dissolved its Interpretive Programs Division and no longer offers environmental education programming directly to the public. What is your take on those comments?
All agency staff provide environmental education as part of their daily work responsibilities. Staff has always worked hard to explain how the Agency's work plays an important part in protecting the environment, public heath and enhances community sustainability. We will continue to incorporate education and interpretive services into the our job responsibilities.