By JEFF MEYERS
PLATTSBURGH — With the ghosts from a once-busy rail yard in the background, the City of Plattsburgh officially opened Waterfront Park, effectively expanding public access to Lake Champlain.
The park, located just north of Plattsburgh Boat Basin on Dock Street, culminates years of planning and development that received high praise Friday from dignitaries, who stood on a recently completed brick patio on the tip of a peninsula jutting into Cumberland Bay.
"This park is to remain forever open and available to the people of Plattsburgh and the region," said Mayor Donald Kasprzak.
He said public access to the lake has been a high priority for generations of city leaders.
"In 1994 (when he served on the City Council), there was quite a difference down here," Kasprzak said. "The rail yard was busy, but nothing was happening on the waterfront, no development at all."
The massive rail yard did seem to be a deterrent for any major development in the area but with the vision of many people involved — including former Mayor Dan Stewart and former City Engineer George Miller — the rail yard was eventually moved south to the Bluff Point area.
"I know this sight was not always so pretty," said John Dennison of Canadian-Pacific Railroad. "Years ago, it was a very busy rail yard, and there were a number of buildings on the property. The only one remaining is that beautiful station building."
Dennison described how difficult it typically is to transfer rail property but said the process between Canadian-Pacific and the City of Plattsburgh was the most positive transaction he had ever been involved in.
Andy Labruzzo, representing the Department of State, called the project a "major transformation from a former rail yard into a major waterfront destination."
Carmella Mantello, director of the Canal Corporation, praised the local community's efforts to connect economic development and environmental protection.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) said she was excited to attend the dedication and praised Miller for the park's "great design" in helping to reclaim the waterfront for public use.
Miller, still carrying the modest demeanor that characterized his years as city engineer, deflected the praise he received for designing the park and said that current Engineer Kevin Farrington played a major role in the overall design of the project.
"They've done an amazing job. When we first started, I didn't believe it would ever happen. But in the end, it's much better than any of us could have imagined."
Stewart, beaming with excitement and pride, said the city was lucky to have about 60 percent of its lake front accessible to the public and praised the work of a lot of people and businesses who helped along the way.
"A lot of people compare us to the Burlington waterfront, but I challenge anyone to look at both parks and see who has the better view of Lake Champlain," he said.
He also called the nearby Clare and Carl's Restaurant the "anchor" that draws people to the park and said that a lot more potential is still available for access to the waterfront.
The city has had hopes of placing a hotel and conference center on a portion of the 14-acre parcel, but those plans are in abeyance and may be heading toward litigation, Kasprzak said.
"Ultimately, the city really wants that parcel to be developed. Since many things have changed over the years, maybe we could pursue some other ideas and options in the future."
The city also has plans to put in a new boat launch just north of Waterfront Park and behind the city's sewage-treatment plant.
E-mail Jeff Meyers at: firstname.lastname@example.org