By Michael Nocella | Ithaca.com / link to original post
In 2001 Rick Manning had a vision: a trail that would connect all the main attractions along the shore of Cayuga Lake. Now, almost eleven years later, his vision is close to fruition. If all goes according to plan, all six miles of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail will be completed and open to the public by this time next year.
“It just seemed like a natural fit to me,” said Manning. His own consulting firm has taken the initiative for planning the trail. “A lot of communities like Ithaca do trails, but it wasn’t happening here for whatever reason. It seemed like a feasible project. I couldn’t think of a good reason why it wouldn’t be doable.”
He did, however, know what kind of things just might stand in the way of such a project from taking off. “Anytime you’re talking building a trail, two things come into play,” he said. “Funding and right of way. Long linear projects such as this touch or are adjacent to properties that usually step on some toes. There’s always some land owners who feel violated.”
The first obstacle, funding, has been largely taken care of, thanks to the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. With their support and guidance, sufficient funds for the project have been raised one way or another, whether they came by state or federal means. “We knew we wanted to be part of this from the moment Rick brought it to us,” said Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce president Jean McPheeters. “We always had visitors come here who wanted to know the best way to walk around the lake,” she said, “and we really didn’t have an answer for them. Now, we do.”
Although McPheeters and the chamber of commerce were behind Manning and his vision, finding financial support was still an adventure. Originally thought to be a five-year project, difficulties along the way have more than doubled that timeframe. “Money has really been the main reason it’s taken so long to get where we are,” said McPheeters. “It’s one of those vicious cycles were, the longer it takes, the more expensive things get, and when things get more expensive, the longer it takes to find money for them.”
When asked what kind of emotions will come into play when this winding route to the finish line is completed, McPheeters smiled. “I’ll be so excited to see this completed,” she said. “It will be so satisfying to go to Cass Park, go to Stewart Park, and other stops along the way and see people using it in its entirety. Complete joy is probably the best way to describe it.”
Unfortunately, it will still be a little while before McPheeters can experience her day in the sun. Although money has been the biggest reason for the length of the project, the “right of way” obstacle has come into play just as Manning suspected it would.
The trail project was organized in three phases. The first phase was centered on a two-mile trail loop around Cass Park and was completed in 2003. Trail furnishings and trail features, including the trailhead, the inlet overlook and the Miller Grove, were funded with private contributions that allowed for the development of many distinctive spaces and amenities along the trail.
Phase 3, which includes a trail through Stewart Park all the way to the Ithaca Farmers Market, was recently finished and has already seen its fair share of users. “When the trail is fully completed, it’s impact is going to be significant,” said Fernando de Aragón, director of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council. “We might not see a decrease in peak hour traffic but the flow of other traffic– recreational trips – will see a change. The ability to get to the places the waterfront trail connects by a nice, safe path is something the city has always needed. It will add a whole new dimension to Ithaca.”
That dimension, however, won’t come into the picture until the last and central portion of the trail – phase 2 – is completed. This last piece of the waterfront trail puzzle will connect the Cass Park Trail (Phase 1) to Inlet Island, Ithaca’s West End, Cornell and Ithaca College boathouses, and the farmers market. It will include construction of a trail bridge, two trailheads, trail furnishings, amenities, interpretive signage, and numerous other trail features. It is, however, the only phase of the trail that does not sit on city property. The fact that the boathouses of both Cornell University and Ithaca College are part of Phase 2 is making for complicating trail making. “It required a lot of patience, a lot of listening,” said McPheeters.
But they were patient. And they did listen. So now what? Now, it starts to get fun.
One of the most exciting aspects for Manning when designing the logistics of the trail was connecting all of the main attractions along the waterfront like they have never been before. From Cass Park, to Ithaca Children’s Garden, to the Ithaca Farmers Market, all the way to Stewart Park – not mention stops in between –Manning knew there was immense potential for Ithaca residents and visitors to experience the waterfront in a connected way through the trail.
To make things even more appealing, some of these attractions are doing their own facelifts in an effort to make the waterfront trail worth the walk. Stewart Park is hoping for more than a facelift, however. If Scott Wiggins has anything to say about it, the historic site will get a complete makeover.
Wiggins, who is the managing director at La Tourelle Resort, also leads the not-for-profit group Friends of Stewart Park, who are dedicated to the rejuvenation and rehabilitation of the park. The Cayuga Waterfront Trail Initiative (CWTI) initiated a study of the state and needs of Stewart Park in 2008 funded by a grant from the Strategic Tourism Planning Board. This resulted in the 2009 Stewart Park Rehabilitation Action Plan (SPRAP). The plan details and prioritizes park enhancement projects and informs the plans to be carried out by the Friends of Stewart Park. “For those who can remember it, Stewart Park use to be one of Ithaca’s most beloved locations,” Wiggins said. “We want to bring it back to those glory days. While we might not be allowed to swim at Stewart Park anytime soon, there’s no reason the rest of its magic can’t be brought back.”
Projects for Stewart Park include renovations of the Cascadilla Boathouse and the installation of a $250,000 to $400,000 playground.
There is also a movement called Ithaca Motion Picture Project, which is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is the rehabilitation of one of the park pavilions. In the early 20th century it was the Wharton Studio building, where over 100 silent films were directed and produced by filmmaking brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton. These, along with other fixtures in the park, will not only make the park a great place for new faces, but also a nostalgic place for older ones.
It is Wiggins’s hope that all of these renovations will be completed in time for the park’s 100th anniversary, on July 4, 2021. “It would be incredible if we can bring back Stewart Park to its original glory for its centennial celebration, wouldn’t it?” he said. “It is tremendous the amount of excitement and connectivity the waterfront trail is bringing to the table and we know Stewart Park will be a huge part of that.”
As Wiggins strives to make Stewart Park the iconic public facade it once was, Erin Marteal and the Ithaca Children’s Garden are making there own renovations in an effort to give Ithaca’s youth intriguing outdoor recreational options. By renovating their edible garden and labyrinth, and adding a brand new hands-on “Anarchy Zone,” which will let kids run wild with imagination, Marteal is hoping any youngster passing through the garden on the Cayuga Waterfront Trail stop by and stay for a while. “We are building an area that is simply an awesome place for kids to hang out and play,” she said. “It’s safe, fun and is surprisingly one of the best spots to do some birding on the trail.”
Marteal can expect plenty of visits. Even with one-third of the trail not available to the public, one aspect of Manning’s original vision is already coming into focus: an increase of Ithaca pedestrians, bikers and joggers. “The hope is that using the trail to get from one destination to another will be a lot more fun and healthy than sitting in traffic,” Manning said. “It’s a great place to walk and enjoy active living. I think the spirit of Ithacans really caters to that type of lifestyle, they’ve just been lacking the resources to do so.”
The Cayuga Waterfront Trail is mapped & described in the guidebook “Take Your Bike – Family Rides in New York’s Finger Lakes Region.”