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"New" Paul Smiths VIC opens with new outlook

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Early last year after state budget cuts, the Adirondack Park Agency announced it couldn't afford to keep running the visitor interpretive center at Paul Smiths.

It seemed natural the school would take over the much-loved interpretive center. But nothing is simple. It ended up working out, and Paul Smiths VIC reopened this weekend. Nora Flaherty has the story of how the college is making the VIC its own.
(Tomorrow, Brian Mann reports on the rebirth of the Newcomb VIC.)

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Brian McDonnell looks out over Heron Marsh, behind the VIC

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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It’s a gorgeous sunny day in the Adirondacks, and I’m walking the grounds of the Paul Smiths VIC. It’s an Adirondack-ish timber-and-stone building, with big windows looking out and big spaces inside.

Manager Brian McDonnell, is showing me the sights—including the marsh the VIC overlooks:

See the green stems? That’s where the muskrats have been chewing on the new growth.

Until a few months ago it was far from clear that anybody was going to be taking care of the VIC—or keeping an eye on the muskrats.

When the state first said it wouldn’t be running the VICs anymore, Paul Smiths college was the obvious candidate to take over—the college even owns the land the VIC’s built on.

But Paul Smiths didn’t want to assume the costs. So president John Mills said no.

But the college’s Sue Sweeney loved the light-drenched, airy VIC space—and she saw too much potential to just let it go:

A couple colleagues and I approached the president with an idea for a possible reuse, and with his permission began to formulate a plan for a center for art, science, nature, and the environment.

It was in those planning stages that Brian McDonnell got involved. He’s been working outdoors in the Adirondacks for three decades, and he’s well-known around here as someone who knows how to get things done:

I’ve been intimately involved in all the aspects of the park, organized a number of events, xc ski center…and most recently my wife and I have organized canoe races including canoe classic which is the 90-miler.

McDonnell’s no stranger to Adirondack politics, either—He’s been a town councilman for Harrietstown, and worked with the Saranac Lake Chamber of commerce.

After months of meetings, McDonnell, Sweeney and some others came up with a plan. They convinced the Paul Smiths administration to go for it. McDonnell signed on as manager.

The plan is for the “new” VIC to tie in with the college’s work educating its students; to be free and accessible to the public; to have a connection with the arts; and—maybe most importantly—to pay for itself.

 [mcdonnell] activities based around nature interpretation…and we’ll be pointing out aspects of the natural world to people who register in advance and pay a fee. The second floor will be office space for like-minded groups.

I realized it’s an arts center and no one’s ever used it as one!

Nathalie Thill is the executive director of the Adirondack Center for writing—which is now located at the VIC.

There’s a theatre space here, there’s an outside ampitheatre space.

Thill has plans for readings in the woods, kids’ art activities, and statues along the trails...

I think having the ACW here I’ll consider it my mission that when people walk in the door they can be traditional or less so…I’m hoping they’ll have that immediate sense of an artistic presence here.

With that—and self-support—in mind, Thill and McDonnell have already begun planning and hosting events at the VIC with authors and poets. 

McDonnell’s actively looking for ways to bring students to the VIC too—from field trips to college coursework.

This is the bird garden, we’ve planted different plants,  we’ve put in attractors for butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds.

McDonnell says the VIC’s always been a great place to ski or take a walk; and he wants it to be something more.  

In many ways the VIC has been a center where people can come out and in a personal way enjoy nature. The original vision is the facility would be an economic engine to the area, and mine is it would bring vitality to the center in a much broader way.

As McDonnell imagines it, the VIC will be a place where you could go to a concert, wedding or party—

And one that will provide a place for local people who have something to share or teach.

The Paul Smiths VIC has already hired three full-timers; and as the center grows, McDonnell is hoping to hire more.

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