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New York to celebrate 400th anniversaries

When Virginia commemorated the 400th anniversary of the United States' first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, the state spent about $15 million  and welcomed the queen of England and President George W. Bush to the celebration.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Virginia commemorated the 400th anniversary of the United States' first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, the state spent about $15 million and welcomed the queen of England and President George W. Bush to the celebration.

When New York state marks a pair of its own 400th anniversaries next year, it will have $4 million to spend. The guests may include a member of the Dutch royal family and a French or Canadian dignitary to be named later.

The Empire State's plans for the yearlong commemoration of the 1609 explorations by Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain have hit their share of snags, false starts and delays. The situation could diminish awareness of Hudson and Champlain's accomplishments, which one historian considers at least as significant as Jamestown's founding.

"Jamestown disappeared. New York City went to be the greatest city in the world," said Kenneth Jackson, professor of history at Columbia University. "New York history tend to gets a little bit overshadowed by Massachusetts and Virginia, so we need to tell our story."

Budget cuts
A state commission created six years ago only recently got down to serious work — then had its $7 million budget cut nearly in half by Gov. David Paterson.

The $3 million set aside for marketing the commemoration was eliminated, leaving local groups without official state-produced brochures to inform New Yorkers about the anniversaries' significance.

"We have nothing," said Celine Paquette, leader of the group that's organizing Champlain events in a three-county region in northeast New York. "If you walked into my office today, I couldn't give you anything."

The Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission was created by the Legislature in 2002 to help create, organize and market events commemorating the 400th anniversaries of the Hudson and Champlain explorations of the waterways that would bear their names.

But little was accomplished in planning for the quadricentennial, and the commission literally missed the boat on marking the bicentennial of Robert Fulton's 1807 steamboat trip on the Hudson River, a journey that forever changed American transportation.

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his appointments to the commission this past winter, but resigned a month later amid a prostitution scandal. A few weeks later, Paterson and the Legislature reduced the commission's spending because of the state budget crunch.

With their marketing funds cut, commission Director Robert Bullock and commission Executive Director Tara Sullivan are paying visits to Hudson-Champlain communities, from Manhattan to Rouses Point, urging them to combine their already-scheduled 2009 anniversary events with the state's official commemoration.

Frustrated by finances
Paquette, frustrated by tight finances, formed her own local subcommittee to organize Champlain anniversary events. She said she's out twice a week, speaking to groups in the three New York counties along Lake Champlain as well as making visits to neighboring Vermont and Quebec.

But, she added, things have improved since Bullock and Sullivan came on board late last year, a sentiment echoed by the head of the New York State Historical Association.

"A lot of us were concerned that opportunities would be lost, but we've taken heart with what's happened in recent months with the commission," said Stephen Elliott, president of the Cooperstown-based NYSHA. "It looked like some of the gears were slipping last year. Now they are gripping."

Paquette points out that the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain events are taking place in an area spread over a large slice of eastern New York, while the Jamestown events focused on one particular location. The New York commemoration covers a 300-mile-long region stretching from Lower Manhattan to the Canadian border near Plattsburgh.

Of the $4 million set aside for New York's Hudson-Fulton-Champlain commemoration, some $1.5 million will be split among 15 counties and 18 municipalities for their local events. Bullock said he expects overall spending to get into the "tens of millions" once money spent by local governments and corporate sponsors is figured in.

Meanwhile, the commission hopes to draw some royals. Since Hudson's voyages led to the Dutch settling Manhattan and Albany, the commission is in talks with The Netherlands to have a member of its royal family visit New York in 2009. Bullock said the commission will also reach out to the French and Canadian governments.