Waterway workshops envision path ahead

Mike Forster Rothbart | The Daily Star Brent Baysinger, owner of Canoe & Kayak Rental and Sales in Portlandville, kayaks on the Susquehanna River behind his store Wednesday, April 27.

Representatives from environmental groups and local governments sat around tables in a SUNY Oneonta conference hall Wednesday, April 27, drawing on maps of the Susquehanna River during a Southern Tier Water Trail visioning workshop.

The purpose of the workshop was to start discussions about how to map and promote recreational boating routes along the Susquehanna and Chemung rivers and their tributaries, from Cooperstown to Corning. The event was organized by Otsego and Steuben county tourism bureaus, with help from the National Park Service.

It was the third such visioning workshop held recently across the region. The two dozen attendees Wednesday came primarily from Otsego County, but some were from riverfront communities as far away as Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.

“We have a world-class opportunity to create something special,” said Kevin Costello, Steuben County visitor’s bureau president and one of the event organizers. He wants to create a tourism draw that will help revitalize downtowns along the rivers, create opportunities for new businesses and get locals and visitors out on the waterways, he said.

The rivers are underutilized, according to Costello. He said he has been frustrated to find some officials who think of the Susquehanna as only a flood mitigation system.

“The more assets you can develop in your communities, the more you can encourage people who want to come work and live here,” he said.

“Sidney has a very negative attitude about the river,” because of past floods, said Don Tuttle, representing the Unadilla Rotary Club. “There’s a natural resistance that has to be overcome.” He has been involved with the General Clinton canoe race for 60 years, and said he’s seen a paradigm shift in how boaters use the river. “We need to branch out from a race that requires you to paddle 70 miles,” in order to reach a wider range of recreational users

Natalia Sanchez from the NPS Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program told attendees she sees widespread support for river trails, and her office can help “support business owners to capitalize on the outdoor economy and build amenity-rich communities.” Constraints include the large size of the proposed project, across 11 counties, with 190 miles of the primary rivers and 400 miles including tributaries. It’s not yet clear who would manage such a water trail.

Marcie Foster, director of public lands for the Otsego Land Trust, commented that people focus on “boundaries created by municipalities instead of tying into the natural features of the land as a unit.”

Community Development Director Judy Pangman and Code Enforcement Officer Steve Yerly represented the city of Oneonta at the meeting.

“We’ve lost our identity as a Susquehanna river community,” Pangman said. The city and town of Oneonta have started working to ameliorate that through a joint Local Waterfront Revitalization Program grant. A key goal, she said, is for the city is to relink downtown to the river, a connection that has been lost since Interstate 88 was built.

“We had waterfront and gave it away,” she said.

The LWRP grant will include more than just the Susquehanna. Oneonta Creek, Otego Creek and other smaller streams will be part of the project addressing recreational access and water management. Safer pedestrian access along Lettis Highway across the river is a goal, as are bicycle and footpath connections from Wilber Reservoir along Oneonta Creek all the way to Catella Park.

The town of Oneonta has different opportunities, because it has more developable space along the river. Yerly said he hopes the town will explore ways to alter zoning and land use along the Susquehanna so the river becomes a destination rather than an afterthought.

After the workshop, Brent Baysinger, owner of Canoe & Kayak Rental and Sales in Portlandville, headed to Cooperstown to pull boats out of winter storage. He then briefly paddled in a kayak on the river behind his store while waiting for a truck to deliver 19 new paddleboards.

Baysinger said he was “cautiously optimistic” after the workshop but concerned that the Department of Environmental Conservation has not been involved, since the majority of Susquehanna public boat launches are technically DEC fishing access points.

“I’m trying not to get too excited because we’ve been down this road before,” he said.

Ideally there would be river access points every three to six miles, in his opinion. His business is 21 river miles from Cooperstown, although it is only 13 miles by road, and there are only two official public boat launches, at Compton Bridge and Susquehanna State Forest. Other unofficial access points in Clintonville, Phoenix Mills and Milford need improvements.

“We’re right on the cusp. It’s been like the wild, wild west up here compared to Pennsylvania,” where the recreational boating infrastructure is much better developed, he said. “We don’t need to look far to figure out how to do this, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need someone to cut through the red tape.”

Mike Forster Rothbart, staff writer, can be reached at mforsterrothbart@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow him at @DS_MikeFR on Twitter.

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