The threat, contained in a “21-day amendment” to Gov. David Paterson’s executive budget, comes as state officials struggle to close an $8 billion gap in the 2010-11 state budget. Paterson’s executive budget calls for $29 million in cuts to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). Among the proposed cuts are the closure of 56 parks and historic sites and service reductions at 24 more. The governor’s parks plan also relies on $4 million to be raised by fee increases and $5 million taken from the EPF.
Minnewaska State Park, along with the Senate House, are among the properties which would operate with EPF funds in the 2010-11 spending plan.
Word of the possible closing of Minnewaska State Park sparked a wave of resistance. On Facebook, the “Save Minnewaska” group signed up 10,000 members in a week and it’s growing.
“Seven days ago I launched a ‘Save Minnewaska’ Facebook site and now have more than 10,000 subscribers,” said Tim Hunter, a resident of Gardiner, business owner, father and outdoor enthusiast, who, like the thousands, “can’t imagine that park being closed.”
When he first launched the Facebook page, the numbers started climbing so high that Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock & Snow in New Paltz, donated a $50 gift certificate to the 1,000th group member.
“At that point, I had no idea how viral this had become,” said Hunter, who said that every time he hit “refresh” on his computer, there were “15 more subscribers. The support we have received from our local, county, state and federal representatives has been incredible. They understand that the closure of Minnewaska State Park would devastate our regional economy, which is driven by tourism, as well as our quality of life, which is so intertwined with the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that park provides.”
Walkway Over the Hudson
“It is understandable and even laudable for New York State officials to explore every avenue in order to close the budget gap presented by the economic crisis currently confronting our state and nation,” said Fred Schaeffer, Chairman of Walkway Over the Hudson. “However, the proposal recently advanced by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to drastically cut services at some of the state’s most popular parks is shortsighted and foolish. It amounts to cutting one of the state’s only remaining economic development draws at a time when the state desperately needs the dollars that tourism brings. To save what amounts to a few pennies relative to the rest of New York’s enormous budget, the State would jeopardize millions in tourism revenue.”
Since the Walkway opened in October, 2009, it has drawn an estimated 450,000 visitors. The governor’s proposal calls for the seasonal closure of the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park from December through March and closing the park two days each week the rest of the year.
“A significant portion of those visitors -- perhaps as many a third -- are tourists bringing new dollars into the Hudson Valley,” Schaeffer said. “That money is being spent in local restaurants, hotels, sports retailers and clothing shops. It is supporting businesses and helping to keep Hudson Valley residents employed. In the process, the money spent here is generating new tax revenue for both local municipalities and New York State.”
Environmental Protection Fund
Created in 1993 and funded with real estate transfer taxes, the EPF is supposed to pay for acquisition of new parkland and historic sites and capital improvements to existing ones. Paterson’s proposal to use EPF money to fund operating expenses at the Senate House and other sites would require legislative approval.
“The state is facing a fiscal crisis,” said Eileen Larrabee, communications director for OPRHP. “In order to prevent additional reductions and closures, this step had to be taken.”
But Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) said that raiding the EPF to pay operating expenses would set a terrible precedent, which could lead to the decimation of a linchpin of the state’s open space preservation and improvement strategy.
“I recognize the reality (of the fiscal crisis), but we are a values-based government and the situation we find ourselves in does not define those values,” said Cahill. “And to raid a trust, which the EPF is, would violate those values.”
Cahill said that expanding the use of EPF money beyond its intended purpose could eventually open the floodgates to an all-out plundering of the $222 million fund.
“Once we open it up for other uses, it’s not too far a stretch for someone to say we should use [the EPF] to fund the state police because, to some extent the state police enforce the law in state parks, or to say we should use that money for homeless services because homeless people living in parks cause litter,” said Cahill. “I believe it’s a door-opener which would open up the Environmental Protection Fund to all sorts of uses.”
On March 3, Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach weighed in on the threatened closure of the Senate House and Minnewaska State Park, and curtailed operations at the Walkway over the Hudson. Auerbach claims that the state parks alone bring $250,000 in sales tax and “tens of thousands” in hotel and motel occupancy taxes to the county each year. The Senate House, meanwhile brings money to Uptown Kingston in the form of weddings and other special events held there, as well as everyday tourism.
How to get involved
Hunter is currently organizing an event in New Paltz that will send a clear message to the governor’s office and the state Assembly and Senate to let them know that Minnewaska is critical to the regional economy and quality of life for so many. He has posted the governor’s phone number on Facebook’s “Save Minnewaska” page and those interested can call the governor’s office at (518) 474-8390 or become a “Save Minnewaska” Facebook member.
We need to send a message to the governor’s office that this cannot and will not happen,” said Hunter.
Schaeffer is asking Walkway’s supporters to rally on its behalf. Visit Walkway’s website at www.walkway.org or its Facebook page to learn more about how to register support for keeping the Walkway open.
“It would be a monumental failure to close a proven world class attraction like the Walkway after we have come so very far to open it,” he said.
-- Erin Quinn and Jesse J. Smith