As New York’s canals get closer to their third century of operation, New York Power Authority President and CEO Gil Quiniones felt it was time to unleash a new way of thinking about one of the state’s most-important assets.
NYPA, which operates the state Canal Corporation as a subsidiary, had assumed operating control of the canals in 2017. NYPA has long had three hydroelectric plants on the Erie Canal, but otherwise approached its stewardship of the canals with a blank slate.
Quiniones knew the canals were special, but also recognized there was a lot of potential just waiting to be untapped. He conceived of the Reimagine the Canals Competition, a $2.5 million contest to reward the most innovative ideas to transform the canals into an engine of economic development for the 234 communities they pass through and for the canals to also become a new hub for recreation and tourism.
Turns out, there were a lot of people up for a challenge. The competition received 145 entries from nine states and seven countries that offered a wide range of ideas that had no shortage of inspiration. The field was whittled down in April to seven finalists, who each received $50,000 to further develop their projects.
An international panel of jurists, including some of the world’s leading canal experts, had the difficult task of figuring out who came out on top. In the end, two winners were announced during an Oct. 3 ceremony in Rochester.
The first, Erie Armada, was presented by a team that includes Parks & Trails New York. It’s a multi-day festival and boat race rolled into one.
And not just any race. This one will feature human-powered boats built by breweries who will compete against each other to be the first to paddle 15 miles on the canals.
And not just any boat. These vessels will largely be made of beer-related items, such as kegs and cans. Beer is mostly water after all, right?
On either end of the Armada will be family-friendly festivals at the start and finish of the race, complete with local food, music and new brews crafted specifically for the Armada by the competing breweries. Details are still being sketched out, but PTNY hopes to christen the first Armada next fall.
The second winner, Canal-Side Pocket Neighborhoods, was lauded for a plan to create small communities along the canals that would share a common greenspace and also have the advantage of being near a business district so residents could walk to where they shop, eat or even work. Plus, they would have easy access to the Erie Canal and Canalway Trail.
The project is a nod to serving millennials, many of whom have nontraditional work arrangements and don’t need to commute to an office. It can also appeal to seniors and empty-nesters who can age in place as well as young families looking for affordable housing. The pilot project will be built in Canastota, east of Syracuse, but is meant to be replicable elsewhere. If it proves successful, the pocket neighborhoods plan could well attract other developers who might not have viewed communities like Canastota as a prime location for new housing. More housing can also lure businesses to open or expand and bring new life to canal communities.
Something old really can be new again. All it takes is a little imagination.