Hugh Reynolds: Mountain high

From left, Mike Hein, Maurice Hinchey, Joe Martens, Jim Seward and Kevin Cahill cut the ribbon. (Phyllis McCabe)

From left, Mike Hein, Maurice Hinchey, Joe Martens, Jim Seward and Kevin Cahill cut the ribbon. (Phyllis McCabe)

Most things in life are bitter or sweet, this and that, pro and con. Politics is mostly black and white. Even ceremonial occasions, like the grand opening of the Maurice Hinchey Catskill Interpretative Center at Mount Tremper last week, can produce mixed emotions.

There was of course, the event itself, long delayed and eagerly awaited. Hinchey himself envisioned this project back in the mid ’80s when he was chairman of the Assembly Committee on the Environment. In 1988, Mario Cuomo signed legislation authorizing up to a million dollars for design and construction. Seven years later, George Pataki, the obscure state senator from Peekskill who took down Cuomo in ‘94 (freshman Congressman Hinchey squeaked in by 1,218 votes, three-tenths of 1 percent) redlined the dormant project.

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But Catskill folk are made of stern stuff. An advocacy group, Friends of the Catskill Interpretive Center, was formed and lobbied endlessly, even as pundits like me predicted the thing would never be built. Never is a long, long time, but so was the 20 years between when Pataki thought he had killed the project and when hundreds gathered under temporary tents in a field off Route 28 last week to celebrate the opening.

Turned 97 the day before, Sherret Chase, a founding member of the Friends, was there, looking like he had just stepped from the front pages of GQ magazine. So was Jim Infante, another founder, still “proud to have been a Maurice constituent.” And a host of others, old friends, advocates, environmentalists, anti-frackers, mountain people, aging Hinchey staffers and government drones not even born when the project was launched.

The speeches, which lasted about an hour, were more about Hinchey’s record as an environmentalist than about the center and its history.

Hinchey, a broad smile on his face, greeted almost everyone personally with what friends call “a half-Hinchey,” a firm handshake with the left hand grasping the other person’s forearm. A few got the full-Hinchey, the handshake and a bear hug. “Hallejullah. Amen,” he said happily again and again.

One of the more forceful orators of his generation — man, could he move a crowd! — now sadly diminished by age and illness, did not speak, not even to rise and wave to say thank you from the podium. And that in a way was the sad irony of the occasion; the man who conceived this project so many years ago had to wait so long for its fruition. The Maurice Hinchey that most of those in attendance knew over a near-40-year career would have brought that crowd roaring to its feet.

Instead, a sanitized press release from the governor’s office, put together by the former congressman and his wife Ilene, (unread) quoted the man who did not speak as stating, “This glorious day is the fulfillment of a 30-year dream made possible by the passion and persistence of so many dedicated people, from hard-working public officials at every level to government to devoted community groups across the region.”

Maurice Hinchey would have said it so much better.

Passing thoughts

Maybe it’s the curmudgeon in me, but I thought this could have been an occasion to damn, if only in passing, foot-slogging government inefficiency that blocked and delayed this worthwhile project for more than a generation. “Better late than never” is no consolation. It rankles. But then, biting the hand that will feed them would no doubt limit future handouts on which this facility will be dependent.

It can’t be measured, but think of the cumulative impact of a fully operational Catskill Interpretive center even 20 years ago. Think of the tourists it would have drawn to this region, those who might have become weekenders, those who might have put down roots.

Clearly, lessons were learned. As several speakers pointed out, state interpretive centers in the Adirondacks, launched around the time Hinchey came up with his Catskill version, foundered and almost failed for lack of government support. It took a region of private and non-profit supporters to make them work. The Catskill center starts with a plethora of deep-pocket supporters.

Given the nature of government bookkeeping, we may never know what it cost to build this facility. The working figure from the governor’s office is $1.3 million, but that covers only recent building construction and attendant site-work. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill procured a million dollars of that amount some seven years ago, with the stipulation by then-DEC commissioner Pete Grannis that it be named after Hinchey, a former Assembly colleague. Hinchey’s million-dollar appropriation two decades previous covered design, site work and the infamous “bridge to nowhere.”

Some $700 a square foot in construction costs is pretty expensive, even by government standards. By comparison, the Ulster County jail, with overruns but without interest payments, cost about $350 a square foot, according to the state.

If there’s such a word as “whelming,” as opposed to underwhelming and overwhelming, this facility fits the bill. Its attractive Catskills farmhouse design offers 1,700 square feet of public space beneath a vaulted ceiling. A virtual diarama of the region dominates the floor and had kids agog. My grandchildren would have appreciated as much a stuffed black bear for sale or even an (extinct) Catskill golden eagle. The real version of Catskill bears lurked in the nearby woods. The wonder is that they weren’t asked to speak.

But let us conclude on a positive note. This facility, fairly launched, has, to use one of the retired congressman’s favorite words, enormous potential.

Photo ops

Bigwigs almost fell over each other in dashing from the ceremonies tent to the nearby Hinchey building for the obligatory ribbon-cutting photo. Leading the stampede with a nice end-run around standing water was County Exec Mike Hein. Hard-hitting Hein, who attended college in Florida on a baseball scholarship, was an excellent athlete in his youth, though built more for power than speed. Hein’s preemptive move got him the primo spot in the ribbon line next to the guest of honor. Camera hog Chuck Schumer, a frequent figure at Hein press conferences but not at this one, would have been envious.

The irony is the county had virtually nothing to do with the Hinchey center, a project designed, funded and executed almost entirely by the state. (Hinchey secured a $380,000 federal grant a few years ago.)

But then Hein is hardly the only local politician with a yen for the camera.

A week before the Hinchey festivities, state Sen. George Amedore announced he had relocated his Kingston district office from Crown and John streets to the media center at 721 Broadway, a few blocks away. Seven-21 is best known as the former headquarters of TV station WTZA and the current district office of U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson.

Amedore’s press release included a photo of the beaming host cutting a ribbon, plus a gaggle of Republican officeholders on this year’s ballot, and two Democrats, Mayor Shayne Gallo and County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach.

Gallo, I get (sometimes); he’s the mayor. But Auerbach has a well-staffed office five minutes away in the county office building. And he’s not up for election this year. But as former Senate minority leader Bob Dole used to say, “Bob Dole says you can’t get your name out there enough.” Shades of the Chuckster.

Footnotes

In a rare example of senior slippage, I gave state Sen. John Bonacic credit for the senate side funding on the interpretive center when it was Jim Seward, who currently represents Shandaken. It takes both houses to pass anything in the legislature plus the governor’s signature. Bonacic, more of a Belleayre man, no doubt had input when he represented the area before the 2011 reapportionment. Seward, a glad-handing old pol, was blessedly brief and entertaining. Also in attendance was Sullivan County Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, more in deference to old friend Hinchey, I suspect, than to a facility 50 miles from her district.

Retiring DEC commish Joe Martens kicked off festivities with a 22-mile Catskill bike ride with locals. Martens, who got a huge ovation from the partisan crowd, is credited with bucking up a waffling Andrew Cuomo to delay and then ban fracking in New York. Why he wasn’t fired by the über-controlling governor speaks to the commissioner’s widespread popularity and to the power of the environmental lobby. He’ll rejoin the Open Space Institute in a high-ranking executive position later this month.

Friends and supporters of Hinchey will celebrate his life and legacy on July 19 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Diamond Mills in Saugerties. “Diamond” tickets go for $1,000 down to gold ($125) and silver ($50). Proceeds will go to the Catskill Center in Hinchey’s name.

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