(Editor's note: This is Part Four 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.)
PAUL SMITHS - History has shown that the Adirondack Park Institute's tag line - "Teaching a Generation to Care" - was almost taken literally. Now, 22 years after it was founded, the group is poised to teach many more generations.
When Adirondack Park Agency (APA) officials announced in January 2010 that they would be dissolving the Interpretive Programs Division and leaving the Visitor Interpretive Centers (VICs) in Paul Smiths and Newcomb by the end of the year, the VIC friends group - the API - was faced with un uncertain future.
After all, the not-for-profit group was created specifically to fund educational programming - for school kids, families, and the general public - at the two VICs in 1989, the same year the Paul Smiths VIC opened (the Newcomb VIC opened in 1990). With its office located at the Paul Smiths VIC, the API and the state-run VICs were joined at the hip, so to speak. It was a unique public-private partnership, a model for visitor/education centers around the nation.
The API board was left with the question, "What would happen to the API if the VICs closed for good?"
The year 2010 proved to be a pivotal and emotional one for API officials. While the mission remains the same, the partners have changed. API board members will now be teaching generations to care with Paul Smith's College at the Paul Smiths VIC and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb.
"Both colleges said to the API, 'Work with us,'" said API Executive Director Dan Fitts, who was hired in 2010. "People love the VICs, and nobody wants them to close, especially us."
The API is a membership-based organization. While it raises program money through grants and fundraisers, it relies heavily on membership dues. Among its list of accomplishments, the API has funded school programs, the Native Species Butterfly House at Paul Smiths, special events, and publications such as the interpretive trail brochures at the Paul Smiths VIC. But in 2010, despite a letter-writing campaign, the API's membership took a hit.
"Now that our future is more clear, we are able to build membership and attract corporate and foundation funding," Fitts said in an interview at the Adirondack Research Consortium office at Paul Smith's College.
Fitts now splits his time between executive director positions at the API and the Adirondack Research Consortium. Yet his love affair with the VICs began more than 20 years ago.
When the APA was making plans to build the VICs in the 1980s (actually it was only supposed to open one VIC, but Gov. Mario Cuomo decided to open two instead), Fitts was a legislative coordinator for New York Sen. Ronald Stafford. He helped Stafford find money to build the VICs.
"I remember going out there (in Paul Smiths) when the site was filled with trees," he said.
Fitts' administrative experience includes a 10-year stint as the executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency, from 1995 to 2005, a time that he cherishes mostly for his work with the two VICs.
"The one thing being away from the APA that I missed the most was the VICs," he said.
Since the VICs opened, volunteers from the community - seasonal and year-round residents - have helped the staff and the API with educational programs, special events, the front desk, the Butterfly House, trail walks, and special projects. With an ever-dwindling staff count at both buildings, the volunteer corps had been an essential component of public programming. The larger group of volunteers - reaching about 60 - was located at the Paul Smiths VIC.
"I think the transition was very hard on them," Fitts said of the volunteers. "They didn't know what was going on, other than the VICs were closing."
While the API and both colleges helped bridge the institutional memory gap between the old and new owners of the VICs - by holding meetings with the volunteers in late 2010 - many, such as longtime Paul Smiths VIC volunteers Dick and Joy Harvey, found the lack of information and communication frustrating. The Harveys mainly volunteer with school field trip programs.
"Our biggest concern is that we would like to know what is being done to re-establish the environmental education programs here," Dick Harvey said while volunteering for the Jan. 29 Chili Ski Tasting event. "The school groups. Will we have them? And, if so, who's going to run them?"
Volunteers, for the most part, are retired and don't have time to administer programs, Dick Harvey said, suggesting that the API hire a full-time paid naturalist to coordinate the school group programs. He also recommended that Paul Smith's College and the API keep the volunteers updated on a regular basis with the plans for the VIC.
"So we have a degree of confidence and know that they are working toward these programs," Dick Harvey said. "Right now we are in the dark."
Vision for the API
Fitts plans on holding informational meetings with the volunteers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb in the near future to answer many of their questions. In the meantime, he outlined some of the API's plans.
In Newcomb, the API will continue to sponsor programs and events at the AIC with its new partner, SUNY-ESF. It will also continue to fund two paid summer internships there.
In Paul Smiths, the API will fund the Butterfly House (including a paid naturalist), the Nature for the Very Young program, school field trip programs (starting in the spring), and three traditional special events: the ski festival in January, the Great Adirondack Birding Celebration in June, and the Adirondack Wildlife Festival in August. All this in partnership with Paul Smith's College.
While working with the two colleges on their plans for the VICs, Fitts sees a similarity between the excitement in the 1980s and today.
The API is still working on a Memorandum of Understanding with Paul Smith's College, and, therefore, many of the details regarding programs are not yet available. However, Fitts said he expects to work with the college to create employment opportunities to facilitate some of the programs, such as school field trips. And he expects to work closely with the volunteer corps.
For more information about the API, call (518) 327-3376 or visit online at www.adirondackparkinstitute.com.