NYS Exposed Follow-Up: Canal Society says NYS is shutting it out of project

April 03, 2017 11:52 PM

ROCHESTER — Your tax dollars and toll money paid for a $10 million project along the New York State Thruway. The problem: You don’t have any access to the park, museum or visitor center that was built.

It’s hard to miss the Port Byron Heritage Park. It sits along the old Eire Canal right next to the NYS Thruway between the Waterloo and Weedsport exits.  If you drive east on the Thruway, you’ve likely noticed the same thing Susan Utter has: “When I first saw it, when they were first building it, I thought, ‘Oh, they're putting a new exit or entrance here, then the building went up and then after that. I've driven by I don't know how many times and it's never open,” she says. 

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A few weeks ago, the NYS Thruway Authority told News10NBC it was still working to secure a permanent operator for the site but it was expecting it to be open for limited hours starting in May.  Since then, we’ve learned the situation is much more convoluted than that. 

The Canal Society of New York was a partner in the project all along.  Its volunteer members worked for years to secure some of the grants to make the park and visitor’s center a reality. Tom Grasso, the former President of the Society says the Thruway Authority told him: “We'll do the construction, you guys operate and maintain and let's make this something special.” He thought it was going to be the perfect partnership until it was time to talk numbers. 

The Canal Society estimates operational costs for the visitor’s center, the park, the old canal and the remodeled saloon will be about $500,000 annually. “Only half of one percent of the people that go by this site, if they stop and donated or bought something for $10, we'll make that,” Grasso says.

The issue: He says the state only recently told the organization that there are federal regulations in place that will prevent them from being able to sell anything in the visitor’s center to raise money.

“It's frustrating because the operation and maintenance agreement we received was something the Marriott Corporation would get, it is.... you will do… you will do... you will do... and we want to do what's possible and feasible, but we need to talk about this,” Grasso adds.

The Canal Society says it is ready and willing to run and operate all of the buildings at the park, including the visitor’s center. But when members asked for a follow-up meeting, the NYS Thruway Authority ignored them until only recently.

A spokeswoman for the Thruway Authority tells News10NBC, despite the fact that the displays in the visitor’s center are owned by the Canal Society and all of the other buildings at the park are owned by the Canal Society, it’s now in talks with a different operator who will likely run the visitor’s center at least for this season. The center is expected to be open Thursday through Sunday from May to November.

“We sometimes get the feeling that – ‘you go stand in the corner and we'll let you know what's going on when we're the professionals of knowledge,’” Grasso says in reference to the Society’s conversations with the Thruway Authority.

For those who travel past the park often, like Utter, the back-and forth, isn’t surprising. “I'm afraid it's going to be another New York State boondoggle but we'll just have to wait and see,” she tells News10NBC.


Jennifer Lewke

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