Camp La Guardia could become Orange County’s newest park

Camp La Guardia can finally assume a recreational use worthy of the name.

Orange County officials are considering turning the former New York City homeless shelter into a county park after years of failed attempts to sell the 258-acre property in Chester and Blooming Grove for redevelopment.

County Executive Steve Neuhaus introduced the concept during his state of the county address Wednesday night, making public for the first time an idea that had only been discussed with administration and legislative leaders. . If the proposal goes through, the long-abandoned property off Greycourt Road would become Orange’s first new county park in decades.

How much would demolition cost remaining buildings of the 1,000-bed shelter complex and constructing park facilities is unclear. But the county is brimming with cash that its leaders want to funnel into capital projects, both from the $75 million in federal pandemic aid it secured last year and from the explosion of sales tax revenue.

The move to a park marks the end of a 15-year quest to recoup the estimated $10 million taxpayers have spent on Camp La Guardia. The county paid New York $8.5 million for the property in 2007 after the city decided to shut down its shelter, then spent $1.2 million in 2016 to undo a stalled sale to a real estate developer.

The abandoned entrance to Camp La Guardia in Chester can be seen in this 2017 file photo. The site was once a women's prison and then a New York City-owned homeless shelter.  Gold Orange County offers a departmental park.

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County officials were still courting offers as recently as 2020.

But what he got that year was a single, low offer of $1.2 million, made by a group that planned to turn the shelter’s oldest structure — a 70,000-square-foot building that opened as Greycourt Jail in 1924 — into a 100-room hotel. rooms and a retreat center. They also offered accommodations, nature trails, bike paths, and a 40,000 square foot “sports dome” for indoor track and field competitions.

County lawmakers, who must approve any sale of property, did not act on the offer.

Aerial view of the Camp La Guardia site before the county demolished most of the buildings.

Before announcing the proposal Wednesday night, Neuhaus told The Times Herald-Record that turning the property into a park would be an investment “the whole county could use.” Initial ideas include building ball diamonds and a snowtubing hill, and leasing a section with fertile farmland for organic farming.

Neuhaus, who was a newly elected Chester city supervisor when the county purchased Camp La Guardia, argued that the 2007 purchase was made more as a benefit to neighboring residents than a redevelopment project. The homeless shelter had long been a sore spot for neighbors in Chester and Blooming Grove, who complained about the misbehavior of shelter residents who had left campus.

“Buying it was a quality of life benefit for the county,” Neuhaus said via email. “It became a problem when it went from a quality of life issue to a lucrative business for the county.”

The proposed park would be the first addition to the county’s park system since the Kowawese Single Area at Plum Point in New Windsor opened in 1996. The county had purchased the 600-acre Winding Hills Park in Montgomery several years earlier.

Turning Camp La Guardia into a park would connect the property to the Heritage Trail, an 18-mile county-owned rail trail that runs from Harriman to Middletown and passes the former homeless shelter. The park would also provide access to another rail bed which is slated to be the county’s next recreational trail.

This planned path, known as Schunnemunk Rail Trail, would travel 10 miles, from Chester to Salisbury Mills. The nonprofit Open Space Institute, which is working with the county on the $18 million project, spent $1.8 million in December to purchase the old man-made railroad segment. business David Plotkin, according to county property records.

County officials and lawmakers began their ill-fated quest to sell Camp La Guardia shortly after the property was acquired in 2007. The following year, they were weighing competing bids from developers who offered a housing and business complexa Greek-themed university and 1,000 homes and a golf course.

They opted to sell the property for up to $12 million to a Scarsdale developer who plans to build 807 homes, 165,650 square feet of retail and office space, and 83,000 square feet of retail space.

Those plans have spent seven years in limbo, stalled in part by the county’s promise to provide enough sewer service for the project. The county eventually paid Mountco Construction and Development Corp. $1.2 million to get out of the contract.

Neuhaus announced in 2018 that Great Wolf Stations was interested in buying part of the Camp La Guardia property to build a water park, similar to the one he’s operated in the Poconos since 2005.

This idea, like all the others for Camp La Guardia, never materialized.

The park proposal is subject to the consent of the county legislature, which would have to approve the use of all county funds to establish a park.

Lawmakers have so far approved plans for $34 million of the county’s $75 million pandemic relief fund, and the rest is still available. The county is also racking up taxes on booming sales: It budgeted $19 million in revenue for February and March 2022 and ended up collecting $25 million, 33% more than expected.

Chris McKenna covers government and politics for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at [email protected]

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