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QUEENSBURY — In 2013, when local tourism leaders were pushing for improvements at the outdated Northway rest area on the northbound side between exits 17 and 18, the plans included improvements to bathrooms, paid for by some local occupancy tax money and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.

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.

Thursday was the grand opening of the new rest area on the northbound side of the Northway in Queensbury, and one particular mention in our co…

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.

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reporter

Don Lehman covers crime and Warren County government for The Post-Star. His work can be found on Twitter @PS_CrimeCourts and on poststar.com/app/blogs.

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