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Communities and businesses on the Erie Canal look forward to the waterway’s annual opening—and the tourists the canal helps bring to them.
“Much of our tourism is related to the canal, and that’s certainly what we’ve tried to promote,” says Margay Blackman, mayor of the village of Brockport.
While some of that trade is waterborne, most of the business comes to such communities by car, bicycle or foot. Government officials and businesspeople could not say exactly how much they benefit from canal-oriented tourism, but a study commissioned by the New York State Canal Corp. estimated that the canal system has an annual economic impact of $380 million.
Though the exact dates vary from year to year, the Erie Canal is open to small craft and some larger vessels from May to November annually. The Erie Canalway Trail, which runs beside the water from Albany to Buffalo, is open to hikers, bicyclists and cross-country skiers.
Brockport has sought to dive more deeply into the tourism pool in recent years from two directions, first by building up canalside services. Back in 2005, the village cut the ribbon to its Welcome Center, a new facility for boaters.
“It’s opened all hours of the day that the canal is open,” Blackman says.
Staffed by volunteers from Brockport’s Canalfront Hospitality Program, the two-room center has bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, cable television and WiFi. Brockport’s stretch of the canal can accommodate as many as 22 boats.
“It’s just a block from our downtown, so it’s very handy,” Blackman explains.
While encouraging boaters to dock at the Welcome Center, the village also has sought to use the canal to draw a river of people directly into its downtown. In late April and early May, Brockport held its second annual Low Bridge, High Water festival.
“It’s a weeklong festival that celebrates the season opening of the Erie Canal,” Blackman says.
The festival featured Erie Canal-themed musical and dance performances, talks and historical presentations and other events. Village restaurants showcased their menus in an event called “A Taste of Brockport.”
The more energetic festivalgoers ran in the 5K Barge Charge race or rowed sculls from Spencerport to Brockport.
Brockport hosts other annual events geared to the tourist trade, including the Brockport Arts Festival. While most are during the warmer months, the village also holds or is the site of annual Halloween and Christmas celebrations that can draw large crowds.
East of Brockport on the canal is the village of Spencerport, which offers tie-ups at three locations.
“We get a ton of boaters—a ton out-of-state and out-of-the-country—on the canal,” says Richard Mogab, manager of Spencerport’s Texas Bar-B-Q Joint, whose parents own the restaurant known for its mesquite-cooked food.
Unlike many businesses along the Erie Canal, by Mogab’s estimate only 1 percent of the restaurant’s customers come because of its location. Texas Bar-B-Q sits right on the waterway, but the restaurant lacks a dining area on the water. Its busiest months—May through August—result from catering graduations, weddings, golf tournaments and other events.
When Mogab advertises, it is not with the Erie Canal in mind. A recent radio ad targeting the Rochester audience brought a “noticeable” amount of business from the city.
“Spending money on canal(-related) advertising would not benefit us as much,” he says.
Farther east, in the village of Fairport, the Erie Canal is considered an essential element of the tourist season.
“We know that it affects the economy, because every spring, when the canal fills, we see visitors and boats and people in the community,” says Kal Wysokowski, executive director of the Fairport Office of Community and Economic Development. “We’ve embraced the canal, and we focus on it.”
Wysokowski also sits on the board of the New York State Canal Recreationway Commission, which advises the state Canal Corp.
Fairport uses the canal in much the same way as Brockport, though on a larger scale and with variations. Fairport Harbor, the village’s marina, hosts about 2,500 boat-nights and brings in roughly $8,000 in boater fees yearly. To help make the village more attractive to boaters, Fairport in recent years completed additions to or upgrades of its port facilities that came to about $1.5 million, half of which was covered by the state. Those without watercraft can tour the canal aboard the Colonial Belle, a private vessel based in the village. The Erie Canal also functions as a funnel to help draw people to the village and its events.
“There’s a lot of stuff to do,” Wysokow-ski says.
One annual event, Fairport Canal Days, which is held the first weekend in June, draws as many as 225,000 people to the village, she says.
Seeking to boost the image of Fairport as a tourist destination, the village invited Gavin Landry, executive director of tourism for Empire State Development, to tour the canal last summer. Empire State Development is the state’s chief economic development agency, and Landry’s waterborne visits to Fairport, Macedon, Bushnell’s Basin and downtown Rochester helped spread word of the village beyond the region, Wysokowski says.
“We’ve had just incredible feedback and placement in magazines and publications, including New York By Rail, the Amtrak publication,” she says.
In addition, by hosting travel writers and journalists, “we hope to elevate the visibility of Fairport, first of all, and create an awareness of the Erie Canal,” Wysokowski explains.
Tourism has taken on even more importance in the Wayne County village of Palmyra.
“I think it’s probably the No. 1 industry,” Mayor Christopher Piccola says. “We don’t have any large employers anymore.”
A wealth of festivals brings business into the village, he says, mostly during the summer months. The canal-themed Pirate Weekend and Palmyra Canaltown Days can fill its streets on the weekends they are held. Others that are not canal-
focused included the weeklong Hill Cumorah Pageant, an annual event held nearby that brings as many as 33,000 people into the area, and the six-day Wayne County Fair in August, which draws up to 20,000 people to the center of the village.
Palmyra also seeks to bring tourists into the area through the Port of Palmyra Marina.
“That whole port along the canal is big for our tourism,” Piccola says.
To attract boaters, the village in 2011 completed a more than $200,000 project that added showers, bathrooms and other enhancements to the port. Volunteers stand ready during the season to assist boaters who tie up at the port, which also features lighted slips with electric hookups and pumping stations.
Tourism also plays a big part in the village of Newark’s economy, says Kimberlee Meeks of Vintage Gardens Bed and Breakfast, and it appears to be picking up. Meeks and her husband own the five-bedroom, 1838 Tudor-style house, which sits two blocks off the Erie Canal.
“I have seen quite a bit of growth in tourism since we opened in 2006,” Meeks says. “During the summer months, when the canal is open, we see a lot of people come into the community.”
Newark has a port with all the amenities on the Erie Canal, but while Meeks says the waterway “plays a huge role” in her business, it is not because of the boaters who tie up there.
“(In 2013) we had over 150 bicyclists that came down the canal and stayed with us,” she says. “The last four years, we’ve seen a huge increase in bicyclists coming through Newark.”
Canal hikers and cross-country skiers also tarry at Vintage Gardens, which is open year-round, and some people come just to see the canal, Meeks says.
Many guests also stop in at the B&B when visiting the village or driving to Finger Lakes wineries or to the region’s state parks, outlet centers or other attractions.
Meeks recently ended a stint on the board of directors of Canal New York: Marketing and Business Alliance Inc., which promotes economic and business development along the entire canal system. In her view, canal communities—including Newark—are catering more to people who ply its waters or trails.
“Our canal community here worked with Wayne County Tourism to help construct some bike maps this year,” Meeks says. “Our village is discussing bike maps, more signage (and) better facilities for bikers and boaters and people who use the canal.”
At the same time, she and her husband have used various means to present the attractions of Vintage Gardens to a wider clientele.
“We do a tremendous amount of advertising, mostly on the Internet,” Meeks says. “We have a blog, I’m on Facebook, (and) we do social media.”
The couple also hosted travel writers, who penned pieces about their bed and breakfast and the village of Newark. Vintage Gardens was even mentioned in a 2012 article in BBC Travel, a British Broadcasting Corp. online publication. The efforts seem to be working.
“We have built, in the last seven and a half years, a thriving business,” Meeks says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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