With the state-of-the-art bulkhead and docks at the Bob Shepard Highland Landing Park along the Hudson River nearly completed, Matt Smith, chair of the Highland Landing Park Association, has already been laying the groundwork for a proposal to install a “skyline” or gondola that would take people from the riverfront to the Walkway Over the Hudson.
According to Smith, he had been pondering the question for months now. “I was looking for a 21st-century solution to a 300-year-old problem: how to get people from the riverfront up Mile Hill and River Road to the rail trail, the hamlet, the Walkway and beyond.”
Smith has worked for years to accomplish the multi-million-dollar project of creating a town-owned park providing public access to the Hudson River, at no cost to the taxpayers but through grants and in-kind services. At last week’s Lloyd Town Board meeting, he did a presentation on the skyline concept, starting with a postcard from 1909 that depicted an overhead trolley in the hamlet of Lloyd and talked about their “near future,” as people stared at it from horses and carriages below.
Smith explained that the association has had consistent inquiries from operators of tourism ships that travel from Manhattan north up the Hudson River and are looking for places to dock and places to show their clients, and he assured them that the park’s state-of-the-art boat docks could handle such traffic. “We have 800,000 visitors that come to the Walkway each year,” he said. “We will have many more that come by boat. But how do we get them up to the Walkway and from the Walkway to our pick-your-own orchards, Historic Huguenot Street, the Wine Trail, our local businesses and restaurants and antique shops? Horse-and-carriage? Motor vehicle? Buses?”
Anyone who has ever traveled the very steep and narrow River Road or Mile Hill Road might agree with Smith that adding more vehicles — and certainly tourist-size buses — “would not be a smart idea.” Thus the gondola idea, or skyline, which is a familiar sight at ski resorts and theme parks. But why not from the riverfront in Highland up to town-owned land at the west entrance to the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Hudson Valley Rail Trail?
To this end, Smith, like he did with Highland Landing Park, has done a lot of research and legwork. He has engaged a local engineering company, Brooks and Brooks, to help him come up with some maps and design work. He has also had discussions with town attorney Sean Murphy and property owners who could have the skyline come over their property, as well as the ski lift manufacturer Doppelmayr, who flew in representatives from Europe to eye the property and give a rough proposal.
Showing Photoshopped images of skyline cars with families in them traveling from the Highland Landing Park up over the Hudson River to the town-owned property next to the Walkway, Smith explained how this might work. “We would start with 25 cars, which are capable of bringing up 1,200 people per hour,” he explained.
Rather than traversing a straight route as most ski-area gondolas do, the skyline would instead hit a point and make a turn, bringing passengers up another 100 feet above the Walkway, providing spectacular views of the Hudson River Valley, and then having them land after an approximately 14-minute trip. These cars are powered by electricity and can carry up to eight passengers, baby strollers, wheelchairs and four bicycles per car.
He said that the idea would not only significantly bolster the local economy through tourism dollars, but is also, in his estimation, “economically viable.” Through calculations that he and other experts who volunteered their time, Smith suggested that the town lease what he called the Highland River Line to a company to operate, rather than get into a business with which it was not familiar. “Typically, that would yield the town a ten-percent lease agreement fee, which could bring in $400,000 per year.”
The construction cost of the project would be $7 million, but Smith said that there were “many grants to go after, in-kind services, investors…I spoke with county executive Mike Hein about this, as well as Ulster County Director of Tourism Rick Remsnyder, and they were ecstatic! They think it’s an incredible idea for Ulster County, as it would not only bring people to Highland, but throughout our region.”
Smith said that he also spoke with Steve Turk, owner of the Rocking Horse Ranch Resort in Highland, as well as the owner of SplashDown Beach Water Park in Fishkill, who “practically did a back flip when I told him about this idea. We already have people interested in leasing and running this for us!”
An early projection of fees for a ride might be $8 per person round-trip and $5 for a one-way trip. “We want it to generate income for the town to offset other recreational programs and our parks, but we also want it to be affordable,” said Smith.
One woman asked if Smith had thought about the “visual impact” that this skyline might have on the view from the river, as well as on the views of residents who live in the vicinity. Smith replied that he had thought about that. “There would only be a handful of property-owners that would be able to see it. And yes, you could see it from the river — which we want, because who on a tourism boat would not stop when they saw a gorgeous skyline trip up to the Walkway Over the Hudson?” That said, Smith explained that there was no desire to make the skyline garish, but on the contrary, to “pick suitable, muted colors that fit into the landscape.”
While in the very initial stages of the proposal, Smith’s presentation demonstrated that he had already done a lot of research, reached out to many people in Lloyd, the county and the skyline manufacturers themselves. He showed a quick video of a similar-type skyline in the Netherlands on which people rode not to climb a ski mountain and go back down, but to enjoy scenic vistas from an aerial view.
Smith asked the Town Board after the presentation whether or not it would allow him, by resolution, to pursue this idea on behalf of the town, similar to his role as the volunteer chairperson of the Highland Landing Park Association — “at no charge, of course.”
“We were going to pay you $100,000,” joked councilman Kevin Brennie, “but since you declined, we’ll just roll that into the Parks and Recreation Department.”
“What is your next step in this process?” asked councilman Jeff Paladino.
“I’ve done a lot of research and had some enormous help since February, but right now I think the next step would be to start pursuing grants and finding potential investors,” Smith replied.
He also noted that, while it might seem like a “pie-in-the-sky-dream” to some, “so many of our most valued projects started out that way. Look at the Walkway Over the Hudson that was proposed by a landowner 20 years ago: It seemed so far-fetched, and look what we have now! Or the Hudson Valley Rail Trail: What? Turn an abandoned railroad bed into a linear pedestrian park? And look at it now, and how much use it gets every day. I think this has enormous potential, and I’m very excited about it,” said Smith.