Multi-use trail advocates want Garry Douglas removed as cochairman of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council for allegedly showing bias toward railroad operations.
In a press release issued Tuesday, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates said Douglas has shown "an overt and egregious bias in favor of rail restoration on the corridor between Utica and Lake Placid, despite growing evidence that such an expenditure of taxpayer funds hurts rather than helps our struggling economy."
ARTA President Joe Mercurio said his organization expects economic development officials to work in the best interest of communities and taxpayers.
North Country Regional Economic Development Council Co-Chair Garry Douglas
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Joe Mercurio, ARTA steering committee member
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
"It is clear that Mr. Douglas has an agenda that is counter to the highest-yield economic development for our region, as study after study has shown that the return on a dollar invested in renewed rail service returns pennies to our local communities, whereas a dollar invested in conversion to a recreation trail offers a multi-dollar payback," Mercurio said in the press release.
ARTA's Dick Beamish said the council has done a good job of identifying priority projects in the region, and he commended the group for securing economic development funds. But he said ARTA is concerned that Douglas is "dead-set against the recreational trail" and "blindly" in favor of restoring rail service between Lake Placid and Utica.
"The problem with that is that is precludes one of the great economic development opportunities in the Adirondack Park," Beamish said.
Earlier this spring, Douglas touted a study that said the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has a $3 million economic impact on the region in direct spending and could bring in another $5.5 million in tourist spending if the rail corridor is rehabilitated from Utica to Lake Placid.
Douglas said at the time that some $20 million to $30 million could be spent locally to fix the tracks.
ARTA also claimed this week that Douglas "distributed 'anonymous' flyers falsely claiming that certain organizations support rail restoration," including Paul Smith's College, the Harrietstown Town Council, the Saranac Lake village Board of Trustees, The Wild Center and the Adirondack Public Observatory.
Those groups have all denied making such statements, ARTA said. The Enterprise contacted many of those groups earlier this year and confirmed they did not endorse rail restoration.
Mercurio said ARTA has asked the council's other co-chair, Clarkson University President Tony Collins, to seek Douglas' removal, "either voluntarily or by an act of the board.
"If Mr. Douglas does not step down or is not removed, we intend to ask the Governor to remove him, as it is clear that his interests are not aligned with the people of the North Country or the objectives set out for the NCREDC," Mercurio said.
"I understand people being passionate about projects and issues," Douglas said in an email. "I and the North Country Chamber are known for such passion, especially around the region's infrastructure.
"It's unfortunate when that passion turns to personal attacks and negativity, however, because that never leads to positive outcomes," he added.
Douglas said the council's strategic planning process has been transparent. The plan, which was given "best plan" status and brought more than $103 million in state funds to the North Country, included perspectives from 30-plus "opinionated leaders" and hundreds of volunteers, Douglas said.
"And now we are tasked with aggressively implementing everything in that plan," he said.
The plan includes support for rail restoration projects.
"I am always willing to reassess and think about my actions and try to be better and more thoughtful," Douglas said. "So I take none of this personally. I will, however, remain active and passionate and I have no problem with others of differing perspectives doing likewise.
"Let's put personal attacks aside," he added.
Douglas noted that during a recent council meeting in Lake Placid, the group adopted an amendment to its plan to "clearly support trail projects in the region."
ARTA formed last year to advocate for the creation of a multi-use, year-round recreational trail on the rail corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. In Tuesday's release, ARTA indicated it wants that trail to run along the unused portions of rail between Old Forge and Saranac Lake.
Beamish confirmed that if the town of North Elba can make a side-by-side trail work between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, his organization is OK with that. North Elba officials say they're close to selecting an engineer for the project.
"If it can be done sometime soon, we have no problem with that," Beamish said. "What we want is a continuous trail that would run from Lake Placid over to Tupper Lake, that 34-mile stretch, and then the rest of the way down to Old Forge."