State continues $900M upgrade plan for parks and historic sites by 2020

Associated Press

New York will transform its aging system of public parks and historic sites by investing $900 million by the end of the decade to upgrade facilities and replace crumbling infrastructure, the state parks commissioner said Monday.

"We are going to change this park system," reversing years of neglect that saw it deteriorate into nearly "total physical and financial decline," Rose Harvey said as she discussed the NY Parks 2020 plan at Saratoga Spa State Park.

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The head of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said the program is a multiyear commitment to leverage private and public funding to improve 180 parks and 35 historic sites. The total includes $110 million in capital spending on parks in the proposed state budget for 2015-16, an increase of $20 million over the current fiscal year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan is part of an ongoing effort to upgrade state-owned recreational and historic properties, many of which just a few years ago were understaffed and dilapidated from a backlog of infrastructure needs.

That backlog is estimated to still be about $1 billion, but one frequent critic of the parks system said major improvements have been made since her group issued a report detailing systemwide deterioration from Long Island's beaches to the cataracts at Niagara Falls.

"Ten years later, it's a real rejuvenation of the park system," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Albany-based Parks & Trails New York.

Amid the recession, the parks agency's budget was slashed by millions of dollars each year, resulting in the closure of some properties and reduced hours and staffing at many others. One prime example was the park where Harvey chose to hold the news conference.

Home to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa's restrooms needed fixing, fields went unmowed and piles of garbage covered parking lots and lawns for days after big concerts at the popular summertime venue.

Since Cuomo took office in 2011, tens of millions of dollars in improvements have been made at the Saratoga park and two of the state's other flagship parks, Jones Beach and Niagara Falls, Harvey said. She said the upgrades will continue this year at those destinations, three of the most popular in the state system, along with scores of other state-run recreational properties.

Harvey said of the $900 million plan, about $640 million will come from the state's NY Works program aimed at improving New York's roads, water systems and other vital infrastructure.

Another $200 million will come from partnership projects with other state agencies such as the Power Authority and Department of Transportation, while the rest will be federal money and funding from private sponsorship of events such as golf tournaments held at public courses.