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Tourism, cultural affairs saw highs, lows in 2010

December 30, 2010
By BILL ACKERBAUER, The Leader-Herald

EDITOR'S NOTE: As 2010 draws to a close, The Leader-Herald is reviewing the top local news stories of the year. Today, we look at the top culture, history and tourism stories of 2010.

For Fulton and Montgomery counties, it was a year of ups and downs in matters related to tourism, history and culture. A Buddhist organization purchased a number of properties in the area, and the state's financial crisis threatened to force the closure of historic sites and campgrounds considered vital to the area's tourism industry.

The Buddhists' arrival

Article Photos

Master Zigaung Shang Shi of the World Peace and Health Organization, a nonprofit Buddhist group, flanked by his disciples, reveals his development plans to residents, officials and potential investors earlier this year in Amsterdam.

Leader-Herald file photo

A theme of culture shock pervaded this year's news reports about the World Health and Peace Organization, the Chinese-American Buddhist organization that bought a former school building in Amsterdam after previously buying two former Catholic churches there, as well as the former Adirondack Center retreat in Ephratah.

The group, which set up its local headquarters near the Auriesville shrine in 2006, spent more than $1 million on real estate this year, buying several city-owned houses at auction in Amsterdam. The group plans to convert the former Clara S. Bacon Elementary school at 40 Henrietta Blvd. into a Buddhist research institute. It has been using the former St. Casimir's Church on East Main Street as a temple, and its leader envisions the forested Ephratah site as a health and longevity institute complete with golden-roofed pagoda-style buildings.

The group's efforts hit some snags: Statues were stolen from its temple, and Ephratah officials halted the construction of a structure the group started to build without a permit. And in a bizarre incident, an Albany pizzeria owner was arrested on charges that he erected a makeshift roadblock in the driveway leading to the WHPO's facility in Auriesville.

The group conducted several publicity events in an attempt to explain its plans to develop Amsterdam as a mecca for health and spirituality.

"What we are doing will make better the health of the community," Master Ziguang Shang Shi, the group's leader, said through an interpreter. "We hope to make Amsterdam city the first health city in the U.S."

Historic sites nearly shuttered

Two of the area's most important historic sites - Johnson Hall in Johnstown and Schoharie Crossing in Fort Hunter - were closed briefly in the spring, after Gov. David Paterson cut funding for the sites from his proposed state budget.

The state Legislature later passed a budget that restored funding for the sites, much to the relief of area history buffs and tourism promoters. The budget crisis prompted Johnson Hall to cancel this summer's Market Fair. The annual event, which features Colonial re-enactors, music, demonstrations and vendors, is expected to resume next year.

Though Johnson Hall will be open for the season again in May, it won't be the same, as longtime site manager Wanda Burch retired in 2010. Burch, a native of Tennessee, was hired to run Johnson Hall in 1974. Over the years, she was responsible for organizing a number of popular events, such as the Market Fair and annual performances by the Mettawee River Theatre Company.

Burch said she will continue working with the Friends of Johnson Hall, a support group for the site, after her retirement.

"Her being involved is so important because she has built such a wonderful relationship with the community," Friends of Johnson Hall President Heidi Meka said. "People love her so much, they automatically believe in what she believes in."

Fight for Caroga campsite

Another local institution that almost fell under the state's budget ax this year was the Department of Environmental Conservation's campground at Caroga Lake.

Faced with news that the facility was slated for closure, supporters of the campground including town Councilwoman Valerie Scribner launched a lobbying campaign to keep it open. A rally outside the gate drew about a hundred supporters, and the town loaned $35,000 to the DEC after state officials asked for a local contribution to keep the campground open. In the end, the effort worked, and the campground was able to open on a limited schedule just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Local officials and tourism promoters expressed frustration at state leaders for using facilities like campgrounds and historic sites as a pawn in budget negotiations.

"We don't need a publicity stunt," said Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Wally Hart. "I'm a little tired of the state playing these games."

Milestone for women's rights

Johnstown this year played host to a series of activities celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote.

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association - named after the local woman who led the charge with Susan B. Anthony in the 1800s - and other groups sponsored purple-and-gold "Women's Equality" banners that were displayed throughout the city.

Related events throughout the year included the 2010 Elizabeth Cady Stanton Women's Symposium in March, the Women of Influence Luncheon in August and the Hometown Association's Victorian Ball in November.

The luncheon featured speakers including Coline Jenkins, the great-great-granddaughter of Stanton, and U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, who represents the 28th Congressional District.

"We're a tenacious crowd," she said at the event. "There isn't anything in the world that this group of women couldn't do."

Walleye Challenge draws thousands

An event amid the cold of late January warmed the hearts of local tourism promoters. The second annual Walleye Challenge ice-fishing tournament drew hundreds of competitors to the Great Sacandaga Lake. The event, sponsored by the Great Sacandaga Lake Businesses Association and the Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry, attracted fishermen from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey.

"This is a wonderful event for all of Fulton County," the chamber's Hart said. "All of the money spent on this event went into Fulton County, people are out having fun, and everything turned out great."

Assistant City Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at This article has been updated from its original version.



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