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The interior of the Adirondacks Welcome Center is seen recently. The total cost of the project came in at $16.2 million after initial estimates were around $2 million.

Welcome center rings up at $16.2 million, some wonder why

QUEENSBURY — In 2013, when local tourism leaders were pushing for improvements at the outdated Northway rest area on the northbound side between exits 17 and 18, the plans included improvements to bathrooms, paid for by some local occupancy tax money and $1 million in state money that was announced in June 2016.

But the scope of the project changed dramatically between 2016 and last winter, to the point that the final tab for what was unveiled last week as the 8,615-square-foot “Adirondacks Welcome Center” was $16.2 million.

The state Department of Transportation acknowledged the project’s cost this week after inquiries by The Post-Star and local state legislators, coming on the heels of a much ballyhooed grand opening Sept. 20.

Joseph Morrissey, a spokesman for DOT said the funding originally put aside for the site was appropriated to rehabilitate the existing facility before New York’s “welcome center” program was initiated. Once the northbound site was identified as the future home of the Adirondacks Welcome Center, the $1 million in funding secured by state Sen. Elizabeth Little was put aside for future improvements at the rest area on the southbound side of the Northway in Queensbury.

“Funding for the new Adirondacks Welcome Center was included in the 2017-18 state budget,” Morrissey said in an email. “The new welcome center provides essential motorist services and is a central component of the state’s wide-reaching promotional efforts designed to support and enhance New York’s $100 billion tourism industry.”

He said a breakdown on how the money was spent will be released in the coming days.

Adirondacks Welcome Center opens near Exit 18

QUEENSBURY — The Adirondacks Welcome Center, located off the northbound lanes of the Northway near Exit 18, had its grand opening Thursday, showcasing tourism information, regional snacks and beverages and even some historical trivia.

The welcome center includes a giant “I Love New York” sign, playground with a zip line, boat washing station and building that has a giant video board, Adirondack fixtures and specially made vending machines for local and New York state-produced food and beverages. It also has a sidewalk adorned with an Adirondack “walk of fame” featuring plaques with the names of 21 Adirondack luminaries and stars.

State Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said his staff had been trying to get a breakdown from DOT about the project for about two weeks, with little success.

He said decisions about the project were made by state officials, and did not involve local input as far as he knew, including for the “walk of fame.”

Stec said it was unclear what prompted the DOT to pursue a bigger project when the initial work was for a much smaller renovation. Initial estimates for the work in 2014-15 were $2 million, when the existing structure was to be used.

“At that point the project was working on the existing structure and fixing the bathrooms,” Stec said. “Betty (Little) and I were both supportive at the time that they had to do something there.”

He said the DOT made it clear last year that it was going to pursue a new “welcome center” that would include demolition of the old building, but the total cost was not announced.

Stec said the state having to pay “prevailing wages” likely added about 20 percent to the labor costs, but even with that factor the project still was “in the eight figures.”

Little, R-Queensbury, said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced at the July 2017 Adirondack Challenge event that $20 million was being put aside for conversion of the rest area to a welcome center that Little said was in dire need of upgrades. Restrooms were “terrible” and outdated, she said.

Little said a lot of factors drove up the cost, such as excavation for the boat washing station, demolition of the old building, concrete removal and adding infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations. Planning for the project cost $300,000 alone, and the state used a number of local contractors, she said.

Little said she is optimistic that the center, with its interactive offerings that allow for maps of destinations to be emailed to visitors, will help bring more visitors to the Adirondacks who stop while on their way to Vermont, or other destinations.

She said the new Queensbury rest area is nicer than others recently built around the state.

“There was a lot to it,” Little said of the project. “I know it’s expensive, but it’s a huge asset to our area. I’m very pleased with it.”

Stec said he has heard from a number of local residents who are questioning the extent of the project, and how much it cost. He said he is still waiting for answers about how the cost grew as well.

“I remember the angst when I was on the (Queensbury) Town Board and we spent $2 million on a fire station,” he said. “I would like to see a breakdown.”

Queensbury resident George Penrose has been among those contacting Stec and Little, wondering whether the money spent on highway “welcome centers” around the state, and the re-development of Frontiertown in Essex County, will bring in more tourists. He said he tried for months to get answers about the cost of the Queensbury project from state officials, but received little cooperation.

“This welcome center issue points to the absurdity of wasted tax dollars when there are so many pressing issues that need attention,” he said.

The state also opened a $20 million “welcome center” on the Thruway in western New York last month, and an $18 million “welcome center” is being built on the Thruway in Greene County. An estimated $12 million was spent on a Mohawk Valley welcome center on the Thruway near Fultonville in recent years as well.

Little said two rest areas near Exit 30 of the Northway, one on each side, cost $11 million years ago, and they aren’t nearly as nice as the new one in Queensbury.

courtesy photo 

The playground at the Adirondacks Welcome Center is seen last week. A dog park, zip line and a boat washing station are other amenities at the site.

Seven local schools proficient in ELA and math tests

The state Education Department released the spring 2018 grades 3-8 English language arts and math assessment results on Wednesday, with seven of The Post-Star‘s 30 area schools being proficient in both categories.

The assessments are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, with 3 considered proficient. For ELA, of all the students who took the test, about 45 percent scored a 3 or a 4; while in math, about 45 percent scored a 3 or 4.

Bolton, Lake George, Queensbury, Fort Ann, Greenwich, Schuylerville and Saratoga Springs were above the state average in proficiency in both categories.

The test refusal rate is on a three-year low, going from 2016’s 21 percent to 19 percent to last spring’s 18 percent.

Lake George made impressive leaps, with its ELA scores going from 51 percent to 62 percent and mathematics from 53 percent to 67 percent.

The tested students were between two schools. The elementary school houses K-6, while the remainder of the students are at the junior-senior high school. Elementary School Principal James Conway was happy with the results, but said he understands it’s only one small measure of a multitude of education in the schools.

“It’s one measure of a lot of things we do,” Conway said. “It’s a one-year snapshot.”

He stated the school focused on constructed response questions, where students have to solve multiple steps to attain the solution. Also, teachers viewed what was deemed a strength and weakness from the assessments and reviewed the curriculum to reflect needed adaptations.

“Our teaching teams work real hard to meet the needs for our students,” Conway added.

Lake George Superintendent Lynne Rutnik said the scores are a result of the school’s monitoring and implementation of the students’ achievements.

“We suspected that the results would look like they do,” Rutnik said. “We have been intentional and purposeful at looking at our data over the last two years.”

She gave kudos to the teachers, students and community for garnering the success for the students.

In Queensbury, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Kyle Gannon and Superintendent Doug Huntley studied the results for the district. They noticed that nearly all grades 3-8 in both ELA and math were on par or grew. Huntley added that grade 8 had a dip, but that cohort has consistent growth.

For English language arts, Queensbury has benefited from Columbia University’s Teachers College, the administrators said. The program has created uniformity among the program. The program has taught the students to love to learn, read and write and not focus on just the content itself, Huntley and Gannon said.

“We worked with (the) Teachers College for years and they taught our teachers to a level that is exceptional,” Huntley said.

Math Modules through the state is the program that the Queensbury officials believes enhanced the students’ education. The students have developed math skills through the continuity of sticking with one program and the teachers becoming proficient in teaching it, Huntley and Gannon said.

Although Warrensburg did see an increase in both tested areas, the percentages are a bit below the state’s average. In ELA, students’ proficiency rose from 27 percent to 33 percent, while in math it went from 25 percent to 27 percent.

“I think the tests, themselves are fair. Unfortunately, because of the high opt-out rate, I don’t think it’s possible to compare year to year or even school district to school district because we are not really testing all of our students,” Warrensburg Superintendent John Goralski said.

He added that the district went through program changes in recent years as the literacy program, which began three years ago, went into full effect this year, while the math program began this year.

“I don’t know if I could give them a reason why,” Goralski said to parents of the subpar results, “but I can tell them what we are doing as a result for the test.”

The literacy program is identical to Queensbury’s as Warrensburg teachers are embracing the Teachers College out of Columbia University.

Greenwich Superintendent Mark Fish saw great improvements in his school’s test scores. The ELA jumped 10 percentage points, from 46 to 56, and the math went up eight, from 39 to 47.

Though the tests are only two days, he said the hard work the students and teachers conduct throughout the year is what developed these scores.

Fish stated the benefits of removing the time limit and making the test two days, rather than three, reduced the stress for the students and parents. He added that it may have an effect to the lowering of the opt-out rate.

“I was surprised how much less stressful the test was when they got rid of the time limit and they went from three days to two days,” Fish said.

Bolton Superintendent Michael Graney said his students were assisted from the time-limit change as well as the length of the assessment. The district’s scores were atop all area schools in both ELA and math, with 78 percent and 68 percent, respectively. In ELA, the district rose 15 percentage points while math went up 1.

“I have been very proud of our results,” Graney said. “I think it’s a compliment to our staff and students. From the top down, it gives our staff to implement the instruction in an effective matter.”

Council approves zoning change for Broad Street housing/retail project

GLENS FALLS — A project to build 72 affordable apartments and retail space on Broad Street cleared a hurdle Tuesday with the Common Council voting to rezone four parcels from residential to commercial.

Regan Development Corp. wants to build two connected four-story buildings on six parcels of land totaling about 4 acres, with frontage on Broad Street between Steve’s Place restaurant and Hill Electric Supply Co. The buildings would include about 6,000 square feet of retail space.

The site is bordered by Broad, Frederick and Staple streets. The council unanimously voted to rezone the parcel at 25-27 Staple St. and three parcels on Frederick Street.

Developer Larry Regan said he was very grateful for the community’s support of the project and for the homework elected officials did in researching the issue.

“This is about keeping the young people in this community that are being priced out of affordable apartments,” he said.

The next step is for site plan review by the Planning Board. Engineer James Easton of M.J. Engineering and Surveying said the board will take up the matter at its Oct. 4 meeting and hold public hearings in November and December.

Regan said if he obtains approvals and the development receives tax credit financing through the state, construction could begin next fall for occupancy in 2020.

Housing need cited

The council made the decision after hearing about 45 minutes of public comment.

Stephen Baratta, who lives at Village Green Apartments, presented a petition with 34 signatures, supporting the proposal. He cited a study that says it costs about $21,000 for a single person to live in the city, when housing, transportation, food and all other expenses are included.

That means the person needs to make at least $10.70 an hour, waiting tables or working in retail stores or at another job. There is not a lot of housing available for these workers.

“If they can’t afford to live in this city, where are they going to go?” he said.

Robert Landry, executive director of Glens Falls Housing Authority, said there are long waiting lists to get into the agency’s units. The authority provides Section 8 about 750 vouchers to allow people to live in apartments throughout the city.

When the waiting list numbered more than 300 people — a backlog of about 2-1/2 years — the federal government told the authority it could not accept new applicants, Landry said.

That list has been whittled down and the authority put an advertisement in the newspaper on Sept. 4, accepting new applications.

“They started sitting in chairs outside of our office at 3 o’clock in the morning and the line was all the way down to the parking lot by the time we came in,” he said.

“We received so many applications for affordable housing that we closed the wait list on Wednesday — 72 hours later,” he added.

Landry said he researched Regan Development and an official from the Plattsburgh Housing Authority told him the developer did a wonderful project in his city.

“They try to incorporate all the green initiatives that they possibly can into their projects, and I’m sure they want to do the same here,” he said.

It’s good location, since there is an affordable housing complex less than one block away and it is near shopping centers and other amenities, he said. There is nowhere to build in Glens Falls but up, he added.

Traffic, school enrollment concerns

Some residents expressed concerns about the rezoning, which were also brought up by the Planning Board earlier this month. The board made an unfavorable recommendation on the zoning change because of concerns about traffic congestion, impact on school district enrollment and the effect on the neighborhood.

Landlord Phil Russell said he worries about the impact on the school district and sewer taxes, and he believes the city already has sufficient places for people to live.

“I think we have far too many ‘for rent’ signs in the city,” he said.

Resident Gerald Henel was concerned about traffic on Broad Street, which he said is a “mess,” and the impact on school district enrollment.

“I don’t see how we can have all this happening without an expansion of the schools,” he said.

Resident Jason Brechko believes there would be an effect on city services and thinks Glens Falls needs a master plan for development.

“We should change zoning with a plan versus just doing it based on an individual project,” he said.

Mayor Dan Hall read a letter from Glens Falls City School District Superintendent Paul Jenkins, who said the district’s enrollment hovers between 2,050 and 2,100, down nearly 800 students from 1995.

“I don’t believe it’s something the buildings within our district would not be able to absorb,” Jenkins said in the letter.

City Engineer Steve Gurzler sent a memo to the council, estimating the project would generate water and sewer flows of about 22,000 gallons per day. That is more than the roughly 13,000 gallons per day that Gurzler believes the site would generate if the zoning remained the same. He said the city’s water and sewer systems have the capacity to handle the increase.

Councilman Jim Clark said the city had two traffic studies done of Broad Street — one by Clough Harbour & Associates and one by Creighton — and they reached the same conclusion.

“Both indicated that there was significant capacity on the roadway to deal with the additional traffic,” he said.

Clark said Regan and his consultants have been receptive to the city’s comments about how the project could affect the neighborhood. Regan will speak at a Fifth Ward neighborhood meeting that Clark and Fifth Ward Supervisor Bennet Driscoll are holding on Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. in the Big Cross Elementary School gymnasium.

The Broad Street corridor has a lot of potential, Clark said.

Councilman Bill Collins said the rezoning makes sense, since other buildings nearby are commercial businesses.

“The city needs housing and although the recent development is great, there have been none that I can think of that helps working-class people,” he said.