BLOOMING GROVE— In early March a local resident flagged down County Executive Steven Neuhaus near the former Camp La Guardia. “Thank God you guys are doing something with this place,” he said to the county exec. “It’s embarrassing when people ask, ‘What is it? A haunted campus up on the hill?'”
The county is giving Camp La Guardia, the former homeless shelter that straddles the towns of Chester and Blooming Grove, a trim and a shave.
Department of Public Works crews are making the buildings presentable for real estate brokers to show the site to potential commercial owners. Crews have begun to clean up the property this month, cutting away overgrown brush, cleaning the interior, and securing the buildings.
“There are no taxes on this property right now that’s being generated to those two communities, or the school district, or the county,” Neuhaus said. He said it’s time to have the 258-acre property be ratable—making it liable for locally assessed property taxes—for the towns.
The property has been empty and unused less than ten years and now looks like the set for a zombie movie. Most windows have been broken. Clusters of saplings have sprouted in open areas. Tall weeds grow where grass once did.
Toward a lower end of the property stands a recreation building and the pump station. A neglected basketball court was overgrown with weeds. A large cement wall was covered with graffiti.
Graffiti fills many walls, despite the solid infrastructure of the buildings. Neglect shows in peeling paint and garbage strewn around in most buildings.
The shelter closed in 2008 just as the Recession was picking up speed. The economy stagnated. “They had 350 jobs here, so when it closed that was tough,” Neuhaus said.
Mountco was given a contract to develop the property into high-density residential units, which the county recently bought back. Neuhaus wants to see it put to commercial use and says the time is right for the property to take off.
Restoration is preferred over demolishing the buildings. Demolition could be costly—Neuhaus estimates in the tens of millions. He says a better direction is to renovate.
“The good thing about it is the buildings are just about intact,” he said. The roofs are in good shape and the brick buildings are structurally sound. Neuhaus said the windows would have to be replaced and a HVAC system installed.
The property is being readied for brokers to show it to commercial prospects. The county’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and the Orange County Partnership are getting the word out. The Chester side is already zoned commercial. The Blooming Grove side of the property is presently zoned residential but town officials are considering changing the zoning to create a ratable site.
Blooming Grove lacks ratables, according to Neuhaus. “There are a lot of houses but not a lot of businesses. A business will pay property taxes including school taxes, but not draw on the Town’s services.” A ratable will offset the tax burden on homeowners, he said.
Last week Neuhaus discussed possible uses for the site with supervisors and planning board chairmen of both towns.
Alex Jamieson, Supervisor of Chester, says he looks forward to working with the county IDA. Jamieson wants development to comply with the town zoning which is light industrial and agricultural. He said representatives of Solar City have already contacted him about a possible solar farm.
Jamieson said residents are very positive about the county’s recent activities to make the site presentable for sale. “What we are looking for is commercial spots, bringing ratables, bringing jobs, and getting things back on the tax rolls so the Town of Chester can benefit from the use of the property.”
Neuhaus envisions a specialized medical practice such as a cardiology, obstetrics, or osteopathic unit by Horizon or Crystal Run. Other possibilities are a satellite campus by a local college, an incubator for start-ups, or a small commercial park.
Neuhaus would like to see it put to some recreational use. An overgrown field could once again be used if it was mowed and painted. “A lot of people around the county are looking for places to play soccer,” Neuhaus said.
Although development will be shared by both towns, 85 percent of the property is in Chester, which includes about 150 acres of potential farmland.
A concept plan suggests several shovel-ready commercial pads be developed. “The Chester pads we can start working on almost immediately,” Neuhaus said.
Open grassland could be developed as farms. Dairy or beef cattle could be raised, or vegetable gardens could be developed.
When it closed in 2008, the shelter housed over 1,000 homeless men, and they were allowed to freely use the Heritage Trail which runs along the property. Local families hesitated to use that section of the trail to hike, bike, and run.
There were incidents and arrests. Neuhaus says usage skyrocketed when the camp closed. So many locals now use the trail that parking is at a premium. Neuhaus recommends a flat area along the trail be converted to a parking lot.
“You can never have enough parking for people to access the Heritage Trail or recreational assets.” Neuhaus wants to see the parking lot developed immediately.
Shelter Gone Wrong
Stephen Nash worked at Camp La Guardia more than 20 years. He interviewed arrivals about alcohol or drug problems, work skills, and educational level. He found out if they had health problems. Most did.
“There was no question that we had a lot of cross-addicted people and there was quite a lot of schizophrenia.” Nash estimates about 25 percent of the men had some type of mental illness.
New York City initially set up the camp for homeless men over 55. “The understanding prior to that was that if you come to Camp La Guardia, you don’t leave Camp La Guardia unsupervised. If you want to leave, we will drive you to the supermarket or where you need to go. We had vans and we would pick you up and you would be under supervision,” he said.
The environment deteriorated when younger homeless men arrived. “That’s when more of the criminal element and problems with the town came up,” Nash said.
The Coalition for the Homeless threatened a lawsuit and New York allowed the men to leave the campus. “Giving the alcoholic free rein to the liquor store and a couple bottles of vodka, it’s not going to be a surprise that they are going to be urinating on someone’s lawn on the way back,” Nash said.
In the early days, Nash said Camp La Guardia served its purpose of housing older homeless men. “They were happy to get off the Bowery.” Nash said the men had a safe place to sleep in a clean environment. They got three meals a day, had their health issues taken care of, and they could relax all day.
Nash says the camp fell prey to political intrigue that made it difficult to run efficiently. “I had a number of proposals to make it very, very cost efficient. None of them were adopted.”
A New Scene
Neuhaus sees significant benefits to commercial development. The county would like to recoup its $8 million investment. Businesses would contribute revenue to the towns and the Monroe-Woodbury school district.
A big plus is putting people to work—making the site a job generator and more. As a medical park, residents would have health care. As a college campus, the site would educate students.
He sees development well on its way by the end of this year, but “the build-out will take years.”
Whatever happens, the county and the towns are making their move. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Let’s leave it as a backup scene for the walking dead,'” Neuhaus said.
“They are saying, ‘Thank God, we are moving somewhere with this project.'”
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