Photo: Fred Schaeffer
Last year, I wrote about efforts to transform the derelict Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge into a spectacular tourist destination. On October 3, I attended opening-day festivities celebrating its much-anticipated reincarnation as Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, the world's longest elevated pedestrian span. Stretching over a mile, the Walkway not only affords thrilling views of the Hudson River, which courses 20 stories beneath it, but of surrounding highlands, bluffs and waterfronts, many protected by the organization I man, Scenic Hudson. This is one of the most dramatic spots in the Hudson Valley -- now open to people from all walks of life -- in a region renowned for its wealth of breathtaking natural splendor.
The project started out as a grass-roots initiative and eventually won support for bipartisan funding under Governors Spitzer and Paterson, state Senator Steve Saland, Congressman Maurice Hinchey and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. The region's leading philanthropic organization, the Dyson Foundation, invested both funds and its institutional clout to renovate the bridge in a year's time, making it the premiere legacy of the 2009 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's historic sail up the river than now bears his name.
Scenic Hudson made an early investment in the project because we saw its enormous potential to connect people to the Hudson River. It would boost the ongoing revival of downtown Poughkeepsie, helping to restore the vibrancy that once earned it the title "Queen City of the Hudson." And it could be the catalyst for the entire region's long-term economic growth based on recreation and tourism. According to a study conducted prior to the Walkway's construction, it's projected to increase direct spending in the surrounding area by $14.6 million annually, estimates that may prove conservative. More than 40,000 people streamed across opening weekend. In the days since, it has continued to attract a steady flow of walkers, bicyclists and joggers.
Such a great return on the initial investment is why so many leaders -- beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Civilian Conservation Corps -- have relied on parks-creation projects to stimulate flagging economies.
Photo: Scenic Hudson
On October 16, I stood atop a bluff overlooking the Walkway with state parks Commissioner Carol Ash to dedicate another state park, this one named in honor of Frances "Franny" Reese, one of Scenic Hudson's founders and our guiding spirit for more than 40 years. Franny led the organization through its successful 17-year fight to halt a hydroelectric project from defacing Storm King Mountain, a Hudson Highlands landmark. The 1965 "Scenic Hudson Decision" rendered by the U.S. Court of Appeals during that battle gave citizens everywhere the right to have a say in protecting their natural treasures and launched America's modern grass-roots environmental movement. As a result, Franny is widely recognized as the "mother" of this movement.
Franny understood the myriad benefits of protecting land, and she knew that conserving America's great open spaces often depends on the resolve, and especially the perseverance, of individuals. I think Franny would be delighted that a park dedicated to her overlooks the Walkway, which began as a dream of several visionary citizens, notably Bill Sepe and Fred Schaeffer, who looked at the rusting bridge and didn't see an eyesore, but an untapped asset. Forming a non-profit, they wound up purchasing the span, and then spent years convincing government and local leaders to support their ambitious plan. Their foresight and tireless work are responsible for those wide grins adorning the faces of all who admire the Walkway's magnificent vistas.
The Walkway's founders inspired others to think big as well. Local governments, individuals and groups (including Scenic Hudson) created the Walkway Loop, a 3.6-mile trail connecting the Walkway and nearby Mid-Hudson Bridge with local cultural and recreational attractions on both waterfronts. In time, the Walkway also will be linked to rail trails at both ends, providing cyclists, joggers and others with some 25 miles of off-road enjoyment.
My wife Tara, who serves as executive director of the Hudson 400th celebrations, made economic and environmental sustainability the motto of this milestone year. We and others are using that credo as a launching pad for environmental improvements to the river, preservation of its critical landscapes and creation of new parks during a Quadricentennial Decade ahead. The openings of Walkway over the Hudson and Franny Reese State Park have certainly gotten this decade off to a promising start.
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