UPPER JAY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo joked that the floors were so clean inside Upper Jay's new firehouse that he did not want to step on them.
The incumbent Democratic governor was the center of attention Tuesday, Aug. 26 in Upper Jay, where he led a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the newly built firehouse. Later he checked reconstruction work at the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway in Wilmington. Both stops were at projects he personally had a hand in and which carry significance to his re-election campaign in the North Country.
On Sept. 9 he'll face a primary against fellow Democrats Zephyr Teachout and Randy Credico, and then he'll face Republican Rob Astorino, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Michael McDermott and others in the Nov. 4 general election.
Around 75 people met in the Upper Jay Volunteer Fire Department's new headquarters for the occasion Tuesday; several local fire departments from around the area were in attendance.
The building, up a hill on Valley Road, was built between last fall and this summer. The former firehouse on state Route 9N suffered heavy flood damage in 2011 during Tropical Storm Irene and has sat vacant since then.
The firehouse still needs a few minor finishing touches, fire Chief Jeff Straight said, but it has been operational since July.
Straight and other members of his department would later give Cuomo a jacket with the fire department's logo, as a token of appreciation.
Cuomo's speech was preceded by remarks from Straight, state Sen. Betty Little and town of Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas, who is also chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors.
They all thanked Cuomo for the $1.5 million state grant he personally awarded in 2013, funding more than half of the $2.7 million project.
Douglas gave an emotional speech, thanking Cuomo for his leadership during the storm that devastated the area. He said the event was less about a ribbon cutting than a thank-you to Cuomo. During Irene, Douglas said he did not feel equipped to deal with the storm and had a moment when he doubted his own leadership.
"I was never so scared in my life," Douglas said.
Douglas said he called his wife, and she reassured him this was his moment to be a leader. Later the governor called, and Douglas said he no longer felt he was going it alone.
"There was one man who led us through it," Douglas said of Cuomo.
After a hug between the two, Cuomo took the stage. He said he, too, learned leadership and political lessons in the aftermath of the storm.
"One of the lessons is how strong and beautiful this state can be as a community, how people can come together," Cuomo said. "Day in, day out, we live our lives in our towns, in our own counties, but something happens if people need help. You see them come together. You see the decency of humanity."
Since the storm, the governor has created the Citizen Preparedness Corps Training Program and announced the idea to create a new college focused on homeland security and emergency preparedness.
Cuomo also spoke about the history of the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway and referenced Franklin D. Roosevelt's dedication quote for the highway. Roosevelt ceremonially broke ground for the road as governor in 1929 and returned for its 1935 opening as president. Cuomo helped push forward the $11.2 million worth of highway repairs for the road, which is funded through the state's NY Works program. The highway's repairs should be finished next year.
"It can be done," Cuomo said, referencing Roosevelt. "We are going to build it back better. It can be done. And here we did build it back better, almost impossible to conceive in the middle of all that damage, but we did."
Meanwhile, Hawkins issued a press release during the governor's visit criticizing post-Irene recovery efforts that waived environmental regulations and let local crews resculpt streams unnaturally. Hawkins said Cuomo and state environmental officials should issue regular reports outlining the status of the recovery efforts for water resources.
"The appearance of Governor Cuomo in the Adirondacks today unfortunately reminds us of the unnecessary destruction that was done to untold streams following Hurricane Irene due to Governor Cuomo's unwise waiving of environmental protections in the recovery effort," Hawkins wrote. "The state needs to revive its emergency response plan to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated in the future."
After the ribbon cutting, Cuomo answered questions from the press, including what he thinks of the current condition of state highways in the North Country.
"North Country is way ahead in the terms of road construction and reconstruction because we had to do so much reconstruction after Irene and Lee," Cuomo said. "And we are actually using Route 73 now as a model at DOT about how you can actually get a project done quickly when you need to."
Cuomo was also asked about whether he would accept debates with his gubernatorial opponents.
"I'm going to leave that to the campaigns to work through, and my campaign will be talking to my rivals' campaigns, and they will figure it out for sure," Cuomo said.
Asked about economic development in the North Country, the governor said its Regional Economic Development Council had been helpful.
"The North Country has been doing great over the past four years," Cuomo said. "I remember four years ago when I first started, there was a totally different feel in the North Country. They felt the state government wasn't listening to them; they weren't part of it. ... We started a new approach called Regional Economic Development Council, which basically flipped the whole process and gave the localities the authority, and the most creative plans won the money."