TUPPER LAKE - At a forum Wednesday night, advocates for removing the train tracks in the Adirondack Rail Corridor questioned support for the railroad in the North Country Regional Economic Development Council's plan.
Garry Douglas, co-chairman of the council and outspoken rail advocate, took a moment at the end of a presentation to explain why the council included support for all rail projects in its plan last year.
People applying for state funding are judged on how closely their projects follow the plan, which was created last year and will be revised this year. So if a proposal involves ripping up the train tracks, as the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates want to do, it doesn't have much of a chance of getting state funding if the REDC's plan states supporting rail as one of its goals.
Former Tupper Lake town Supervisor Dean Lefebvre expresses support for rehabilitating the railroad tracks in the Utica-to-Lake Placid rail corridor at a forum Wednesday at The Wild Center, held by the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Douglas told the crowd gathered at The Wild Center Wednesday night that the plan's support for rails didn't come out of nowhere.
He said the NCREDC got applications last year from several different groups asking for help with several different rail lines, including one from Next Stop Tupper Lake asking for help rehabilitating the railroad between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake.
There were also public comments in support of rails, and several of the working groups created to concentrate on parts of the plan found reasons to include rails in the plan as well, Douglas said.
"It came through many doors and many ways," he said.
He said the support is also consistent with a basic economic development concept: Where there are modes of transportation, there are people.
Through the council's study last year, its members found that one of the biggest challenges to development in the Adirondacks is isolation, both in terms of communication and transportation.
"There's a reason that OWD (the former Oval Wood Dish factory) is empty down the street," Douglas said.
He said it doesn't make sense to get rid of what is one of the region's assets, noting that people thought the Tahawus rail line would never work again, but it is in the process of being brought back to life.
Douglas said trail advocates can "disagree on balance ... but I would suggest there are sound, arguable reasons" that the council got the input it did and then included the rail support in its plan.
He said it is valid that trail advocates would ask the council to explain their reasoning.
Dick Beamish, part of the steering committee for ARTA, called for Douglas to resign as co-chair of the council, which the ARTA had done earlier that day in a press release.
Members of the ARTA cited a letter from Douglas that was published in the June 13 issue of the Tupper Lake Free Press, suggesting "friends of the rail road turn out in force" and not to advertise the forum "on facebook or similar public means as we don't want to attract ARTA's attention."
There was an outburst from the crowd when the letter was mentioned, village Mayor Paul Maroun told the Enterprise this morning. Someone called it a disgrace and said he couldn't believe Douglas had done such a thing, Maroun said.
Several other ARTA representatives spoke, arguing that a recreational trail would be better for economic development in the area than rehabilitating the rails.
Tupper Laker Chris Keniston, an ARTA recruit, asked that the council separate its support for projects like the rejuvenation of a Newton Falls paper mill, which includes rehabilitating rail there to transport goods in and out of the mill, from the Utica-Lake Placid rail corridor.
Keniston lives on the Adirondack Rail Corridor, and he doesn't see any companies coming in looking to do anything with the rails.
"I've watched it rotting away for 40 years," Keniston said.
He said he sees people trying to hike, walk, bike and snowmobile on it every day, though, and thinks it would be a boon to the area if it were made into a full-blown recreational trail.
Joe Mercurio, another ARTA steering committee member, said he's talked to many who say a recreational trail would bring many tourists to the area.
"I think this is an economic game changer," Mercurio said.
Hope Frenette, another Tupper Laker, said she feared rejection from the community when she joined the ARTA's steering committee, but instead she's heard much support for her advocacy for a recreational trail.
Several rail advocates spoke as well, recommending the council maintain its support for rehabilitating the tracks in the Adirondack Rail Corridor. Some called for the ARTA to join in the plan to create a recreational trail alongside rehabilitated tracks.
"We, all of us here in this room tonight, should be working together and not at cross purposes to bring as many tourists as possible to Tupper Lake and its surrounding areas and our fellow townships along the rail line," said former town Supervisor Dean Lefebvre.
Maroun said that in addition to talking about some other priority projects - since the meeting was not exclusively meant to deal with the rail/trail debate - he expressed his support for the rail-with-trail plan, noting that the current state administration has made it clear that it plans to keep the train tracks in place.
"These people (ARTA members) have to either get on board with us or let it sit there and rot," Maroun told the Enterprise this morning.