Contractors began ripping up 11.5 miles of county-owned U&D tracks at the Ashokan Reservoir last week to create a rail trail. Meanwhile, the rail operation at the eastern (Kingston) end of the tracks reported just over 24,000 riders on its Polar Express run from Kingston Plaza to West Hurley last November and December. Those were similar numbers to 2016’s.
The Ashokan plans call for the removal of tracks, ties and trees, stabilization of the right-of-way, creation of a walking and biking trail, and installation of parking, lighting and other amenities.
Will the Ashokan trail attract 24,000 walkers and/or bikers (more than the population of Kingston) annually when it opens in May 2019? Not for a while, I suspect. These things usually take time to mature.
The removal of century-old rails around the Ashokan, vehemently opposed by the Catskill Mountain Railroad and its supporters, marks a final chapter in the long-running battle between the county and the rail folks.
CMRR reports that overall ridership declined by about 5 percent last year. Railroad President Ernest Hunt said that the railroad’s Phoenicia-to-Boiceville tourist run had attracted almost 9,600 riders in 2016. The county leased those tracks to a Rhode Island-based pedal-cart operation last year. Owners say operation will begin on Memorial Day weekend.
Constructed along the Esopus Creek west from Kingston in the 1870s, the Ulster & Delaware opened the way for farm produce, timber and bluestone to go one way and tourists the other. The railroad, rerouted when the Ashokan was built under the 1905 Watershed Act, was handsomely compensated for the inconvenience. Thousands of residents were displaced.
In 1955, the last passenger train ran the length of the 38-mile route from Kingston to Highmount. Freight operations ceased in 1976. Hoping to create a tourist attraction — remember Steamtown USA? — Ulster County acquired the tracks in 1979. A 25-year lease with the Catskill Mountain Railroad expired in May 2016.
The $9 million Ashokan rail trail, a cooperative project among the county, the state and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (which owns the reservoir), is projected for completion by Memorial Day of next year. It’s probably just a coincidence that County Executive Mike Hein will be up for a fourth term in 2019. Nominating conventions are held in late May or early June. Many a horn will be tooted.
Hunt said CMRR will work to secure storage facilities in Kingston this year to replace its former yard on Cornell Street. Under arrangements yet to be decided with the Town of Shandaken, the company hopes to store equipment on its property in Phoenicia. The volunteer organization aspires to rehabilitate track in order to lengthen its runs westward.
The saga displayed conflicting sides of the county executive. At times Hein was the bully, grinding the railroad into submission. At other times the diplomat emerged.
The compromise he forced on the railroad in 2015 separated east from west. New York City agreed to invest millions in the rail trail project. Improved working relations with Gotham, as opposed to overblown “invader” rhetoric on Hein’s part, can only accrue to the local good.
At the eastern end of the line, tourism is thriving. If walkers and bikers go west, the net effect, minus some broken eggs, can only be positive.
Nothing draws like free drinks and food in a really nice setting, so I wasn’t surprised to see the back-to-belly crowd turn out for the formal launch of the “new Wiltwyck” last Wednesday at the once-private golf club in the Town of Ulster. Working my way through backslaps, high-fives, hugs and snubs, I heard the PA system playing The Beatles’ classic “Yesterday” above the buzz.
“Yesterday?” I said to Ulster Supervisor Jim Quigley, standing by the door with a glass of merlot in hand. “How about ‘Help,’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down,’ ‘Good Day Sunshine,’ ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ ‘We Can Work it Out,’ ‘With a Little Help from My Friends?’”
Numbers-cruncher Quigley might have preferred “Money. That’s What I Want,” covered by The Beatles. Quigley is aware, he says, of speculation that the investor consortium now running Wiltwyck may approach the town for an assessment reduction next spring in its efforts to trim expenses and raise revenues. The Wiltwyck story provides interesting scenarios, like a meeting of the minds between the private and public sectors.
Like a winning candidate trying to figure out government — think Jimmy Carter — the 11 investors who put up $200,000 each to save Wiltwyck from God-knows-what fate have a tall order in front of them.
Collectively, they raised enough to pay off the $1.8 million mortgage, with cash to spare. From previous reports, we learn the club’s annual operating expenses come to about a million dollars. Its 100 remaining golf members (once 300) at $4,000 each might get them through the first year. But after that, what?
The big winner was Dr. Tony Bacci (he owns The Lazy Swan golf course in Saugerties and the former county infirmary in Kingston), who bought the Wiltwyck mortgage at a $400,000 discount and then sold it back to the investors at full value, plus fees. Four hundred thousand with little money down in six months. Sweet.
Wealthy lawyer and investor Joe O’Connor seems to have been assigned the job of spokesman and chief cheerleader for the group. Joe is that kind of step-up guy. It was O’Connor who, after a few brief remarks from fellow investor Bill Collins, outlined plans for the club.
O’Connor, risen from middle-class Rosendale roots to a Bentley in his garage, passed over the club’s “elitist” history to a future of “democratization.” Common folk will be invited on the club’s hallowed grounds, even unto its underutilized swimming facilities.
The consortium, after serious reflection, has come to the conclusion that “we can’t make it just on golf,” says O’Connor. Plans call for expanding the swimming and dining facilities in order to attract year-round business. A fitness center might fit, or a conference center. O’Connor did not dismiss the notion of a domed pool. Neither did he speak to winter sports on the club’s 150 acres.
Partygoers were cautiously optimistic on Wiltwyck’s future. On one hand, the club member investors didn’t get rich by being stupid. On the other, most seem able to afford to lose $200,000 to keep their old playground open.
The public component, however belatedly arrived at, will tell the tale. You know it don’t come easy.
Congressman John Faso faces the music at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Ulster Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Best Western in Kingston on Thursday.
The first in a series of such events across the sprawling congressional district Faso represents, it should be a sellout, tickets being as scarce as people willing to admit they’re Republicans in Ulster County.
For Faso, this will be the unofficial launch of his re-election campaign. He’s usually adroit at these kinds of stand-and-deliver forums. How he handles questions from the audience will say much. For sure, protesters will be out in force.