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Op-ed column: Loss of Aqua Ducks is sign of Albany’s lack of historical pride

Sunday, July 15, 2012
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Donna Grethen/Tribune Media
Donna Grethen/Tribune Media

After nine years, the Albany Aqua Ducks land and sea tours of New York’s capital city are coming to an end today.

Amphibious vehicles that could ride on the city’s streets and float off its shores in the Hudson River provided an entertaining and insightful look at Albany and its rich history from a unique perspective.

In the process, it became a popular warm-weather tourist attraction, serving an estimated 175,000 patrons over that time.

It was certainly an ambitious effort on the part of Albany’s former police chief, Robert Wolfgang, with two other local investors, Maureen Lundberg and Harry Van Wormer. Other cities, like Montreal and Boston, had (and still have) “duck tours”; but they have larger local populations from which to draw patrons and are more immediately recognized by out-of-towners as tourist destinations.

Wolfgang was not altogether specific about the reasons for the venture’s closure, pointing to a wish for retirement and saying “the time seemed to be right” to sell the vehicle-vessels. Mayor Jerry Jennings cited “understandable” financial pressures in a challenging business climate.

Michelle Vennard of the Albany County Tourism and Visitors Bureau blamed the long-planned and equally long-delayed Albany Convention Center, which she said the Ducks’ owners were counting on as a key source for customers in their initial business plans.

More telling perhaps, though, was Wolfgang’s almost in-passing, mild expression of surprise that, once it was made known last winter that the entire business — which includes three trolleys as well as the two amphibious vehicles — was for sale, there was no local interest.

The problem with Albany

Why not? Perhaps the best kept — and unfortunately least advantageously leveraged — secret about Albany is its history.

Therein, to this observer, lies the real problem — not the business climate, nor the lack of a convention center. Rather, it is the fact that the city seems to lack the kind of identity and sense of “pride of place” that other capital cities project far more confidently.

Albany is the capital of New York, the state that calls itself “The Empire.” Yet it seems to have struggled over its more recent past to regain and hold the respect that such a position would seem to naturally engender. Past governors and would-be governors, instead of working to enhance the city’s stature and reputation as one might expect, have more often openly disparaged it.

The city hasn’t always helped itself, either. One example from not too long ago involved the discovery of a Colonial-era distillery during excavation for the construction of a parking garage.

Rather than reveling in the historical significance of the find, the city seemed to view it almost as an unwelcome annoyance and, after quickly extracting a few artifacts, sealed the site, effectively entombing it away from public attention in order to quickly finish the construction.

Albany Aqua Ducks tried to put the spotlight on the city’s history, but — in having to do it practically all alone — the odds would have always been long.

However, drawing from the “When Life Gives You Lemons” file, a little newfound imagination and determination applied in a timely fashion could still yield rich benefits.

Opportunity from Disappointment

From its unique Dutch beginnings as a frontier fur-trading post to its peaceful acquisition by the British, to the nascent development of the new nation as proposed in the Albany Plan of Union, the development of the Erie Canal and the Port of Albany, and later as an important rail transportation hub, this city was long a center for social, economic and political activity and held a major role in setting a tempo for the nation, as befitting the capital of a great state.

Almost as if on cue, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated a refreshingly keen interest in the state’s history and appears to be actively looking for ways to make it more available and accessible to the public at large. Two key institutions could serve as a nexus for a new beginning for both the state and its capital city.

An apparent lack of political interest and recent state budget crises have stunted the New York State Museum’s development. Its mission is nothing less than to tell the story of New York, but it hasn’t been able to revitalize its permanent exhibits in decades. Meanwhile, the Albany Visitors Center at Quackenbush Square holds a fascinating but little-known or publicized exhibit that, put in similar terms, tells the story of Albany and could easily serve as the basis for a museum about the city.

Sources of energy

New synergies should be possible with better state-city cooperation and coordination that would more effectively and efficiently leverage state and city efforts to better tell the stories of both. To start, the Capital Region has colleges and universities with strong history and museum curatorial programs, and professors and students who would seemingly jump at the chance to do so.

Once started, the scope of this effort could be incrementally expanded to involve other historic sites and interested parties, public and private, and even serve as a model for constructing meaningful historical anthologies around the state.

The disappointing loss of the Albany Aqua Ducks can turn out to be a small stumble or a deeply injurious fall. The operative question is: Do we have the ability to recognize the opportunity; and then the determination and imagination to get up and start taking some fresh, real and productive steps?

John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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