SARANAC LAKE — Citing bias, a group proposing railroad-track removal is looking to remove Garry Douglas as co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council.
Adirondack Trail Advocates hopes to build a 94-mile recreation path by tearing out railroad tracks from Lake Placid to Old Forge.
The tracks are managed by the State Department of Transportation in cooperation with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, in summer, and with snowmobile clubs in winter.
The railroad bed transects some 10 municipalities and miles of private land boundaries. Currently, the railroad is operated for 10 and 20 miles on either end for scenic train excursions, while much of interior track is considered unsafe for commercial rail traffic.
For many years, Douglas, also president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, has lobbied to restore the rail line to full operation.
Seven years ago, he helped secure $5 million from Gov. George Pataki for railroad restoration between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, a project still in planning.
The North Country Regional Economic Development Council was formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2010 to prioritize regional economic-growth strategies.
‘EVIDENCE OF BIAS’
Trail Advocates launched its mission last year to build a recreation/bicycle path free of steel rails.
“It is clear that Mr. Douglas has an agenda,” Trail Advocates charged in a statement this week, claiming restoration “is counter to the highest-yield
economic development for our region.”
The organization asks Economic Council Co-Chair Anthony Collins to seek Douglas’s removal, either voluntarily or by a board vote.
“If Mr. Douglas does not step down or is not removed, we intend to ask the governor to remove him, as it is clear that his interests are not aligned with the people of the North Country or the objectives set out for the (Regional Council).”
Trail Advocates cite “evidence of bias,” alleging Douglas distributed fliers that said certain businesses and local governments support railway restoration. They also say Douglas used the business names in the flier without permission.
Trail Advocates allege that Douglas also wrote a letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press urging rail supporters to “come out in force to drown out recreational-trail supporters” for a recent meeting.
It says, “as co-chair (Douglas) is chartered with eliciting exactly the kind of input he seeks to suppress.”
In response, Douglas said he is “always willing to reassess and think about my actions and try to be better and more thoughtful.”
But the “flier” was not a promotional communique, he said.
“That list (of names) had all of the organizations who had agreed to be listed as part of the Adirondack On Track Partnership coalition when first organized in 2006 to seek funding from then Governor Pataki.”
The list had not been updated for more than five years, and in January, On Track sought to include Newton Falls and Tahawus in its railroad lobby.
“For that reason, and because there had been changes at several organizations, it was circulated directly and through partners to confirm if they wished to remain listed,” Douglas said in an email.
“This was nothing nefarious but rather a draft getting passed along prematurely in the course of a process.”
‘A STEP TOO FAR’
Douglas said the letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press was meant as a personal correspondence to Next Stop Tupper Lake Chairman Dan McClelland, who is also the newspaper’s editor.
But that email was published.
“Nevertheless, in hindsight, it went a step too far in mixing my roles. I feel badly about that and apologize,” Douglas said.
“I will, however, remain active and passionate, and I have no problem with others of differing perspectives doing likewise. Somehow, in the end, this can usually lead to better outcomes, finding the best ways to achieve two aims instead of one.”
Jim McCulley, Lake Placid Snowmobile Club president, is on the Trail Advocates Board of Directors.
“Douglas’s job as co-chair of the Economic Council is to take input and then go from there. We just need an honest debate here,” he told the Press-Republican.
‘NEED DOT INPUT’
Also on the Advocate Board, Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, helped craft the DOT Travel Corridor management plan for the Remsen railway in 1995.
“We obviously have our own agenda that a trail would be much better,” he said.
“But even putting that aside, I can’t think of a better waste of taxpayers’ dollars; even fully operational, that railroad line is not going to be more popular now than it was 60 years ago.”
McCulley and Goodwin agree that the rail corridor’s future depends primarily on DOT revisions to the unit management plan.
“We need to have a real conversation, based on facts,” Goodwin said.
“DOT has not agreed to join the conversation. It is hard to find common ground without DOT involved.”
Trail Advocates paid Rails to Trails Conservancy $25,000 for a corridor study, and the final report is now in draft form.
It will be presented in a public forum at 5 p.m. July 11 at the Harrietstown Town Hall.
“We’ll invite everybody,” McCulley said.
Email Kim Smith Dedam: