SARANAC LAKE - The state Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers in Paul Smiths and Newcomb would be closed under Gov. David Paterson's proposed 2010-11 budget.
The Executive Budget proposal says closing the two facilities, which provide environmental programs and recreational opportunities to the public, would still "preserve (the APA's) core mission of regulatory oversight" while saving the state $129,000 in 2010-11 and $583,000 each following year.
Paterson is suggesting some other entity or organization take over operation of the visitor centers.
Kay and Marvin Best, of Saranac Lake, contemplate a snowshoe route in December at the Adirondack Park Agency’s Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths.
(Photo courtesy of the APA)
"Recognizing the value of educating the public about the natural resources of the Adirondacks, the Agency would work to identify an educational or not-for-profit entity to assume operation of the facilities," reads the governor's budget briefing book.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the agency is "disappointed" by the proposed closure of the visitor centers.
"The governor has asked all state agencies, during these dire fiscal times, to make tough choices and share in the sacrifice," he said. "It's generally accepted that despite the good work and the impacts the VICs have, they're not part of the agency's core function."
The visitor centers would be phased out and closed by January 2011, McKeever said.
"It will be business as usual for this year," he said. "We anticipate no layoffs until 2011."
The VICs employ a total of eight full-time and two part-time workers.
Former employees and volunteers at the visitor centers were saddened to hear Paterson wants to close them.
"It's a shame," said Andy Flynn, former senior public information specialist for both visitor centers. "I feel bad for the staff. Some of the most talented environmental educators in the whole Adirondack Park work at both places."
Flynn also said the closure will impact local residents and visitors, including school children, who've benefitted from the programs and trail systems at each VIC.
Still, Flynn said he wasn't surprised by the move.
"You can only cut so much," he said. "The state has been cutting from the APA multiple times each year. Something's got to give at some point."
Richard and Joy Harvey of Saranac Lake, who've volunteered at the Paul Smiths VIC for 15 years, primarily leading school groups, called the governor's proposal to close the facilities sad.
"We think it's a terrible, terrible shame," said Joy Harvey. "This is an opportunity for locals as well as people who visit the area to get an idea what the Adirondacks are like."
"Sure, they're going to make some savings, but do they really understand what they're losing?" asked Richard Harvey.
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said he was disappointed the governor wants to close the VIC in his town.
"A lot of effort, cost, sweat and tears have gone into that," he said. "I don't know what it is in Paul Smiths, but the cost of running this one in Newcomb can't be great. So this seems to be pennywise and dollar foolish."
While Paterson's budget proposal mentions the possibility of a non-profit or other entity assuming operation of the VICs, it's not known if anyone is interested at this point.
The state leases land from Paul Smith's College for the Paul Smith's visitor center, and APA officials met with representatives of the college Tuesday to discuss the governor's proposal. There was no formal offer made to have the college take over the Paul Smiths VIC, according to PSC spokesman Ken Aaron.
"Our initial reaction at this time is that we're not interested in purchasing the VIC building or operating it," Aaron said. "We don't have the revenue necessary to do that."
APA officials had taken other steps in recent years to reduce the cost of running both VICs. The hours of operation at the two visitor centers, which had been open seven days a week, were cut to five days a week last year.
That change may have been a reason why the number of visitors at both facilities dropped off in 2009. A total of 59,895 people visited the Paul Smiths VIC last year, down from 64,295 in 2008. At the Newcomb VIC, 26,955 visitors came through the doors in 2009, down from 28,447 in 2008.
In addition to cutting the centers' hours, the APA recently reduced the amount of acreage it leases for the Paul Smiths VIC by half.
Since the late 1980s, the APA has leased more than 2,700 acres from Paul Smith's College for its visitor center, trail system and environmental programs. Officials from the APA and the college, however, recently agreed to amend the lease to remove two forested parcels from the agreement: a 605-acre tract and a 731-acre parcel, both of which are west of the main VIC facilities.
"It's land that we don't utilize a lot," McKeever told the Enterprise on Friday. "It's land the college thought they'd like to use for commercial logging, silviculture and education. So we said we'd alter the lease and give them their rights to it back."
McKeever said the move will reduce the APA's lease payment by about $20,000 while also providing college officials with an opportunity to expand their opportunities.
While McKeever described it as a mutual agreement, Aaron said that wasn't the case.
"We were approached about altering those leases," he said. "It was not our idea. It was absolutely their desire to lose some of that leased land."
Only one of the VIC's trails - the Silviculture Trail - crosses the property the APA will no longer be leasing. As part of the agreement, however, it can still be used by the public and will be maintained by VIC crews, McKeever said.
Under the amended agreement, which was recently approved, the Paul Smiths VIC is now leasing 1,398 acres from the college.
The Newcomb VIC, which opened in 1990, is located on a 236-acre parcel that's part of the Huntington Wildlife Forest, a preserve owned by Syracuse University and maintained by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
The closure of the VICs was listed among the major environmental initiatives of the Executive Budget. Other proposals include reducing the state Environmental Protection Fund by $79 million and enacting a moratorium on Forest Preserve and open space land acquisition.