Strauss: How the Erie Canal can make an economic comeback in its 200th year
Kathryn Krawczyk | Editorial Editor
When construction on the 363-mile-long Erie Canal began in 1817, it was expected to transform the economy of upstate New York. But even though the economic impact of the canal didn’t last as long as its champions may have hoped, there’s reason to believe the canal can drive change in its 200th year.
Celebrations for the bicentennial will begin this weekend in communities along the canal — communities that have enormous potential to capitalize on the canal for economic gain. Through efforts to expand shipping and tourism in the communities surrounding the canal, it can not only help upstate New York make an economic comeback, but also make a comeback of its own.
In its early days, the canal was used to ship millions of tons of commercial cargo every year, drastically reducing the cost of shipping between the Midwest and New York City. Massive railroad expansion during the late 19th and early 20th centuries overtook the canal as the cheapest and quickest way to move goods.
But in May, the Erie Canal saw a flashback to its old shipping days. The Genesee Brewing Company used the canal to ship giant fermentation tanks too large to move any other way. The canal has also been used in the past to transport navy sonar equipment, wind turbines and other large manufacturing equipment that isn’t feasible to transport by land.
The New York Times reported the state expects more than 200,000 tons to be shipped through the canal this year — a small number compared to the capacity that once flowed the canal. Still, the canal may be on the verge of a resurgence in commercial shipping that could help spur business growth throughout the state.
It’s no secret the upstate New York economy is struggling. The rapid outsourcing of manufacturing has caused factories to close their doors, and the state itself has one of the slowest-growing economies in the country, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The Erie Canal may not be the answer to all of upstate New York’s economic problems, but it can be used more effectively to drive business growth throughout the state in a number of ways.
Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor
The first is commercial shipping. Genesee Brewing Company demonstrated the canal can be used to transport massive manufacturing machinery. Manufacturing facilities still located in upstate New York — and ones like Elon Musk’s SolarCity that are just starting out — can ship larger, more advanced machinery on the canal as they scale their operations and upgrade their facilities. Some may have no idea they could ship on the canal, but Genesee Brewing Company’s use of the canal has helped bring this option into the mainstream.
The canal can also move beyond its traditional use and spur economic and business growth through tourism. Lockport, a town located about 20 miles east of Niagara Falls, is one locality that’s made progress in canal tourism. Part of the original Erie Canal runs straight through Lockport, and the local government has taken strong initiative to utilize the canal as a focal point for building a thriving tourism business.
City officials believe in using the canal as a catalyst for economic growth, said David Kinyon, a former economic development coordinator for the town of Lockport.
“Through continued investment by the New York State Canal Corporation in marinas and other kinds of infrastructure, we see a great opportunity to increase visitor counts,” Kinyon said.
Some officials and even residents may see canal development as a waste of resources. But Kinyon said he believes canal communities across the state, like Lockport, could use their canal assets to boost tourism.
It’s been working in Lockport. Local businesses often name themselves after the canal, and a canal tour business and canal cruise line have been thriving for years. Restaurants and main street shops have popped up along the canal’s bank more recently.
Canal communities across the state can follow Lockport’s lead, viewing their canal as an asset and eventually investing overnight accommodations, restaurants and other attractions to build an ecosystem of tourism.
The rich history of the Erie Canal demonstrates the ingenuity and determination of the human spirit to drive change when necessary. This spirit is rising again in New York state on the canal’s bicentennial, and canal communities should capitalize on it to discover new ways the 200-year-old waterway could breathe life back into their economies.
Daniel Strauss is a junior entrepreneurship and finance double major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @_thestrausss_.
Published on June 11, 2017 at 1:30 am