Visioning SMARTACUS

If the Saratoga Springs Smart City Commission embraces the proposal we’re crowdsourcing for its September 25th meeting, we’ll want to trademark another name to support our brand-building efforts:

SMARTACUS, The Saratoga Innovation Center

We’ll draw up a draft trademark application to be signed at some appropriate time after the Commission’s September 25th meeting. That signing will mark the formal beginning of Round 2 of our Practicum in Collaborative Media.

In the meantime, we’ll ask our designer, Skidmore graduate Siwei Song, to produce a logo for The Saratoga Innovation Center that’s in keeping with the campaign’s other key marks, which include these:


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Commissioner of Finance and Smart City Commission Chair Michele Madigan is convening a first meeting of what might be called the SMARTACUS Development Team. This is one of a number of items we’ve placed on the agenda.

Visioning Grant Cottage

Five years after the state closed the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility, no buyer of the 325-acre complex has come forward. To imagine a new future for this storied peak, perhaps we should look to its past.

THIRD IN A SERIES

As president of the Friends of Grant Cottage, the non-profit group that has operated the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage State Historic Site on Mount McGregor near Wilton for three decades, Tim Welch imagines the day when the razor-wire-topped fence of the former prison is gone and visitors can again walk to the summit of Mount McGregor where Victorian-era guests of the Hotel Balmoral once roamed.

THIS PHOTO SHOWS THE HOTEL BALMORAL ON THE SUMMIT OF MT. MCGREGOR IN 1897 THE YEAR IT WAS LOST TO FIRE.

THIS PHOTO SHOWS THE HOTEL BALMORAL ON THE SUMMIT OF MT. MCGREGOR IN 1897 THE YEAR IT WAS LOST TO FIRE.

After an exhilarating ride up the mountain railroad, 19th century visitors would disembark at a rail platform near the current Grant Cottage Visitors Center, then go up the hill under a rustic covered walkway to the luxurious 100-room Balmoral on the summit. Along the way, they would pass close by the two-story cottage where Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 after completing his two-volume memoir of the Civil War.

The security fence was installed in the early 1980's as the state converted a former tuberculosis sanatorium from the early 20th century into the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. The new prison needed a recreation area for inmates, so the flat five acres on McGregor's summit that inspired William Arkell and Joseph Drexel to build the Hotel Balmoral 100 years before was turned into a softball field, with an outdoor recreation and basketball court created nearby.

THIS RUSTIC WALKWAY LED VISITORS FROM THE RAIL PLATFORM JUST BELOW GRANT COTTAGE UP TO THE HOTEL BALMORAL. THE SIGN WELCOMES ULYSSES S. GRANT, WHO ARRIVED IN MID JUNE 1885 AND DIED FIVE WEEKS LATER.

THIS RUSTIC WALKWAY LED VISITORS FROM THE RAIL PLATFORM JUST BELOW GRANT COTTAGE UP TO THE HOTEL BALMORAL. THE SIGN WELCOMES ULYSSES S. GRANT, WHO ARRIVED IN MID JUNE 1885 AND DIED FIVE WEEKS LATER.

"The fence sliced Grant Cottage's story in two and made the Balmoral half inaccessible," says Welch. "With the closing of the prison, we have an opportunity to reconnect these historic properties, undertake archaeological work, and tell the entire remarkable story of Mount McGregor, the Hotel Balmoral, and Grant Cottage."

The Friends of Grant Cottage currently are focused on multiple infrastructure projects that Welch considers to be essential. Among them are the installation of both a fire-suppression system to prevent Grant Cottage from going the way of the Hotel Balmoral, which burned to the ground in 1897, and a solar array that will enable the Cottage to become energy-independent.

Also, there is a need for more parking and event space that will only become more critical when Grant Cottage is designated a National Historic Landmark, a milestone that's expected soon. The best way to address both parking and event space, says Welch, is to remove the fence and open the entire historic summit to the public. With that achieved, Welch would favor building a parking lot on the site of the old basketball court, putting cars out of sight from the Cottage. On the softball field above, Welch envisions a 200-seat open-air pavilion with a handicap accessible northern outlook offering spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the mountains beyond.

"Imagine the programs and concerts we could host there," Welch says.

For this expansion of parking and the Mount McGregor Pavilion to become a reality, the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency tasked with selling the former prison property, would have to rewrite the request for proposals it has produced in its search for a buyer. The parcel could then be transferred to the Parks agency, securing it for public use. This would reduce the number acres being offered for sale from 325 acres to 320.

Can this be done? It's worth asking. Toward that end, SMARTACUS is planning a public discussion at Caffe Lena in October, Visioning the Mount McGregor Pavilion. Details to come.

This field on which the hotel balmoral once stood would be the site of the mount mcgregor pavilion envisioned by grant cottage and the state office of parks, recreation and historic preservation.

This field on which the hotel balmoral once stood would be the site of the mount mcgregor pavilion envisioned by grant cottage and the state office of parks, recreation and historic preservation.

Visioning Mount McGregor

The closing of the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect Saratoga Springs to the Adirondack Park. The redevelopment of Mount McGregor could be the main driver in the success of the conservation and recreation strategy proposed for northern Saratoga County by the Open Space Institute and Saratoga PLAN.

SECOND IN A SERIES

MOUNT MCGREGOR TODAY

MOUNT MCGREGOR TODAY

Visitors to Saratoga Springs in the late 1800s could climb aboard a narrow-gauge train at North Broadway and enjoy a scenic 12-mile ride north to the forest-crowned summit of Mount MacGregor, the highest peak south of the Hudson in the Palmertown range of the Adirondacks.

There they found the 150-room Hotel Balmoral, built by Joseph W. Drexel, who also built the railroad. In building the hotel, Drexel moved to McGregor's Western Outlook the smaller Mountain House that Duncan McGregor built in 1876. Drexel would later offer the use of the lodge to General Ulysses Grant to complete his autobiography in the last six weeks of his life in 1885.

On December 1, 1897, the Hotel Balmoral was reduced to ashes in a blaze of mysterious origin, as reported by The Saratogian.

"The entire structure was destroyed by fire early this morning and the heavens for miles around bore brilliant evidence of the fiery fate of this caravansary on the mountain top, 1200 feet higher than Saratoga."

MOUNT MCGREGOR IN THE 1890s

MOUNT MCGREGOR IN THE 1890s

"Of course, nothing could be done to save it, for there are no firefighting facilities on the mountain."

Men had been at work on the building for several days, "painting and otherwise improving it." Lanterns had been used and a "fire had been kept to warm a portion of the lower floor."

"It is possible that spontaneous combustion was generated by some of the oily and turpentine rags used by the painters, but this theory cannot be proved and a good many people would not believe it anyhow."

A few months after the hotel burned, Drexel took apart the railroad and the city's most popular link to the Adirondacks was lost.

EMPIRE STATE DEVELOPMENT SEEKS A DEVELOPER TO BRING BACK TO LIFE THE 325-ACRE SITE WHERE THE HOTEL BALMORAL ONCE STOOD, FOLLOWED BY A SANATORIUM FOR TUBERCULOSIS PATIENTS, A VETERANS’ REST HOME, A RESIDENCE AND HOME FOR THE DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED, AND A MINIMUM- AND MEDIUM-SECURITY PRISON.

EMPIRE STATE DEVELOPMENT SEEKS A DEVELOPER TO BRING BACK TO LIFE THE 325-ACRE SITE WHERE THE HOTEL BALMORAL ONCE STOOD, FOLLOWED BY A SANATORIUM FOR TUBERCULOSIS PATIENTS, A VETERANS’ REST HOME, A RESIDENCE AND HOME FOR THE DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED, AND A MINIMUM- AND MEDIUM-SECURITY PRISON.

THE NEXT CENTURY

Over the years, other uses were found for the site. While the hotel was gone, the infrastructure remained and that, with new construction, would support over the next century a tuberculosis sanatarium, a veterans’ rest home, and a residence and school for the developmentally disabled. In 1976, the New York State Department of Corrections turned the complex into a minimum-security prison, which ultimately closed in 2014.

In 2017, the Empire State Development Corporation started seriously looking for a developer to purchase the 325 acres that remain surrounded by a 10-foot fence after 750 acres of forest around the prison were opened to the public as an extension of Moreau Lake State Park. ESD offered $8 million toward infrastructure improvements, but that was not enough to persuade serious developers who might be put off by the need to install a new water system and piping for natural gas, as well as the challenge of dealing with three municipalities -- Corinth, Wilton, and Moreau -- in obtaining the necessary permits

Some say there's no way McGregor will ever be redeveloped. The obstacles are too massive.

But others are hopeful, even determined. None more so than Melissa Trombley-Prosch, the Grant Cottage historic housekeeper and site curator who in 1985 led the fight to save the cottage when the National Park Service starting taking steps to close it.

"History has taught me that anything is doable if you just have a group of like-minded people who have decided that a particular choice of action has merit and is achievable," says Trombley. "All of this is achievable, but there's been no vision."

VISIONS OF MCGREGOR’S FUTURE

Enter the Open Space Institute and Saratoga PLAN. As part of a conservation and recreation strategy for northern Saratoga County they published last fall, these non-profits are proposing two new visions for the summit that would harmonize with McGregor's history and surrounding forest, lakes, and trails.

One is a museum or interpretive center that highlights the area's indigenous, cultural, and ecological history. As a model, OSI and PLAN point to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, with its "museum park," a trail system that leads visitors through natural areas to commissioned works of art. "Designed for hiking, walking, and jogging, the unpaved natural trails allow visitors to deeply experience art and nature," the museum's site says.

MASSIVE WORKS OF ART LINE THE GREENWAY BIKE TRAIL AT THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART.

MASSIVE WORKS OF ART LINE THE GREENWAY BIKE TRAIL AT THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART.

But an even better model for Saratoga Springs may be that provided near Portland, Oregon by craft brewers Mike and Brian McMenamin, who in 1990 imagined a new future for a 74-acre parcel that for over a century had served as a poor farm, a jail, and a nursing home. Shuttered in 1982, the building, called Historic Edgefield, went into an eight-year period of decline that the McMenamin brothers ended with their determination to bring people together with "good beer, good food and good music" and create the "Disneyland for adults" that McMenamins Edgefield is today.

The manor that once housed the impoverished and nursing home residents is now a 100-room hotel. Surrounding it is a pitch-and-putt golf course, a fine dining restaurant, a spa, a soaking pool, a concert and event venue, a winery and vineyard, brewery, a distillery, a glass-blowing studio, a pottery studio, gardens, a pool and game hall, and a "sprawling park-like campus dotted with tiny atmospheric pubs just waiting to be discovered," reports Spirited magazine.

Would something like that be possible on Mount McGregor? Absolutely, says Jeff Olson, a local architect and planner with Alta Planning + Design who consulted with OSI and PLAN on the South Palmertown study.

THE MANOR THAT ONCE HOUSED THE IMPOVERISHED AND NURSING HOME RESIDENTS IS NOW A 100-ROOM HOTEL AT MCMENAMIN’S EDGEFIELD, A DESTINATION RESORT NEAR PORTLAND, OREGON.

THE MANOR THAT ONCE HOUSED THE IMPOVERISHED AND NURSING HOME RESIDENTS IS NOW A 100-ROOM HOTEL AT MCMENAMIN’S EDGEFIELD, A DESTINATION RESORT NEAR PORTLAND, OREGON.

"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect Saratoga Springs to the Adirondack Park," he says. "We can connect more than 10,000 acres into a sustainable resource for conservation, recreation and economic development."

Properly executed, the redevelopment of Mount McGregor could be the main driver for the success of the conservation and recreation strategy that OSI and PLAN are proposing for northern Saratoga County, says Katie Petronis, OSI Northern Program Director.

"Imagine a space that's focused on recreation and appreciation of the region's many outdoors offerings would encourage trails development and appreciation of the fabulous Palmertown landscape, with its rivers, lakes and peaks. Imagine a network of trails that reaches all the way down to Saratoga Springs at Daniels Road State Forest, where it meets the Greenbelt. It would spawn bike shops, trailside eateries, brew pubs, and bed and breakfasts. The redevelopment of Mount McGregor is critical to this plan."

Visioning the Palmertown Range Trail

The spine of a 13-mile trail stretching from Daniels Road State Forest in Saratoga Springs to the Hudson River and Moreau Lake is nearly complete. The trail is a signature project in the conservation and recreation strategy proposed by the Open Space Institute and Saratoga PLAN.

FIRST IN A SERIES

Julia Stokes and Kurt Kress.JPG

Trails take a long time, says Julia Stokes. She would know; she’s been building them most of her life.

After aiding in the launch of Saratoga Springs’ resurgence as the first director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, Stokes moved to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) where in the early 1990s she was named Deputy Commissioner for Regional Operations. In that position, she was responsible for all of the state’s parks east of Syracuse, south of the St. Lawrence River, and north of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Headquartered at Saratoga Spa State Park, Stokes at that time lived with her husband on five acres adjacent to Skidmore's North Woods, which sits at the southern terminus of the Palmertown Range. She walked her collie every day on its trails, and so she had a personal interest in a meeting she was about to have with Kurt Kress, a young Parks engineer who'd been assigned to the team that was developing a new master plan for Moreau Lake State Park.

BLOCKS OF GREEN

This was the mid-1990s. Niagara Mohawk had just sold its dams on the Hudson due to regulatory changes that prompted the company to get out of the power-generation business and focus instead on just transmission. Having purchased 3000 acres of prime Adirondack forest around Spier Falls Dam and Sherman Island Dam, the Open Space Institute (OSI) had just transferred it to New York State and thereby quadrupled the size of Moreau Lake State Park -- from 700 to 4100 acres.

The question Parks officials were now asking: What do we do with this new land, which can offer the public spectacular new views of the Hudson and access to lakes and forest previously off-limits?

Now capital facilities regional manager for OPRHP, Kress at that time was on the team assigned to answering questions like, what do we about these huge Niagara Mohawk transmission towers? Can we build trails under them? That took the team a couple of years to work out with Niagara Mohawk's lawyers, but they did it.

Palmertown Ridge.JPG

Kress was specifically assigned to surveying all of the ecological communities within an extended radius of the park. He walked into Stokes' office and rolled out on her desk a long map with a twisted line running along it from the North Woods to Moreau Lake.

“That’s the Palmertown Range Trail,” he announced.

Thirteen miles long, the trail Kress proposed included two state forests already in the public domain -- and thus easy to incorporate in the trail  -- and other essential properties that weren’t. These included the undeveloped land around the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility and a large plot in Wilton that John Witt had bought for his Woodard Road development.

 “As we were inputting my data into my GPS locator, we could see these blocks of green in a line," Kress recalls. "That was the genesis for saying, 'someday, these blocks should be linked together with a coherent trail system.’"

Stokes loved the idea, but she knew it wasn't going to be easy. Trails take a long time.  


A STRATEGY FOR THE PALMERTOWN RANGE

Fast forward 20 years and we can see that much of that early vision is in place. Most importantly, 750 acres of undeveloped land around the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility are now attached to Moreau Lake State Park, providing access to two pristine lakes and a way ultimately to get to the popular Grant's Outlook on Mount McGregor's summit.

The result of groundwork laid by Saratoga PLAN and the Saratoga-Capital Region Parks Commission, this acquisition was essential to the vision of the Palmertown Range Trail. It provided the impetus in 2017 for OSI and PLAN to undertake a major study of the region. With extensive community input in the form of stakeholder interviews, focus groups and surveys, environmental consultants Alta Planning + Design and Bernuth & Williamson completed last November a 150-page recreation and conservation strategy. This will serve as the main reference to which everyone can now refer in making virtually any kind of decision involving land.

THE HUDSON SLICES THE PALMERTOWN RANGE AT MOREEAU LAKE STATE PARK.

THE HUDSON SLICES THE PALMERTOWN RANGE AT MOREEAU LAKE STATE PARK.

For example, if you're a private landowner, you'll want to know if your property is particularly prized for conservation. If you’re interested in selling your land, you may have an interested conservation buyer. If you're not looking to sell, there may be other conservation or public access options, many of which may afford a financial incentive.

If you work in town government in Saratoga Springs, Greenfield, Corinth, Moreau, or Wilton, you'll want to know the study's recommendations on zoning.

If you're an outdoors-oriented entrepreneur, you'll want to know the high-traffic areas that offer greatest potential in recreation-based tourism businesses, such as lodging, restaurants and cafes, rental shops, environmental education and guide services, camping, geocaching, and related businesses at appropriate locations along the trail system.


COMPLETING THE SPINE

With its forested granite peaks and steep valleys, the ruggedness of the Palmertown Range has served as a shield against developers, despite being directly adjacent to the highly developed Northway corridor. That’s why it still has a forest economy that includes Christmas tree farms, the harvesting of lumber and maple syrup, the manufacture of woodcrafts, and outdoor recreation centers.

The strategy concludes: "The myriad charismatic ecosystems, flora, and fauna found in the Palmertown Range can serve as an economic and quality of life asset for the community by providing place-based recreation unique to the location relative to the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains, and the Hudson River."

In 2016, the Open Space Institute acquired for $1 million the 282-acre Greentree Lake parcel. Adjacent to Lincoln Mountain State Forest's southern boundary, this will be a key piece of the Palmertown Range Trail's "spine," which is now about 70 percent completed, says Katie Petronis, OSI's northern program director.

 "There remains only a handful of parcels on which public access is needed to complete the spine trail. We are in touch and working with the majority of those landowners and are hoping to have the access phase of spine trail development completed in the next five years."