Workers at the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga County, slated to close in July, left a parting message at the entrance to the prison grounds.
“Goodbye Mt. McGregor. We ALL did our very best until they ended it!”
This is not the end of Mount McGregor as much as it’s the onset of … something. The correctional facility has no inmates now, but it does have a future. What that future is — whether it be a casino, business incubator or some other use — has yet to be determined.
The former prison, on a mountaintop that straddles the towns of Corinth, Moreau and Wilton, was pitched by town supervisors as a site for a casino, but didn’t pick up any interest from developers. Now the site could be marketed for businesses under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tax-free program START-UP NY.
Town supervisors are working to come up with a plan for the site and gearing up to compete against three other state prisons — also slated for closure — for a portion of $32 million in state funding.
“We are working on a plan to submit to the state for a part of that funding,” said Moreau town Supervisor Preston Jenkins. “We want a plan that will benefit all of the towns on an economic development viewpoint. We have discussed housing, retail and a possible casino.”
But local officials are having some trouble selling the site, which is owned by the state. What do you do with a former prison?
The original buildings at Mount McGregor were constructed in the 1920s. The site was previously used as a tuberculosis center and a rest camp for World War II veterans and served as the Wilton Developmental Center. It didn’t become the medium-security prison known as Mount McGregor until 1981.
The entire site is about 1,200 acres and includes 71 buildings. But the area dedicated to the prison is only 86 acres. Jenkins said nearly 800 acres would be transferred to neighboring Moreau Lake State Park. Grant Cottage — the final home of President Ulysses S. Grant — will remain untouched as a state historic site.
Wilton town Supervisor Art Johnson said there are a lot of ideas but “many challenges” in marketing an institutional-type facility. There is only one narrow road leading up to the prison, some of the original buildings are decaying and the sewer system is in the toilet.
“Discussions include a resort with a golf course or residential housing and senior/assisted-living housing,” Johnson said. “We’re open to anything, really, and all of the supervisors are working to move this forward.”
Johnson said he has been in talks with several developers who plan to look at the site and see what could be done with it once the prison closes at the end of July.
But before any development happens, Mount McGregor’s sewer system needs to be addressed.
“It’s in very bad shape,” Johnson said.
That’s where the state funding could come in.
“First we need a project to apply for that $32 million with Empire State Development,” Johnson said. “The proposal could be a combination of projects for the actual prison and nearby sites. I would think sewer infrastructure would be a very good use of that money, especially if we want to get a developer coming in there.”
Empire State Development, the state’s leading economic development agency, will oversee the prison’s future development. Mount McGregor will be competing against the Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County, Chateaugay Correctional Facility in Franklin County and Monterey Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Schuyler County for a chunk of the state aid.
Mount McGregor had more than twice the employees and inmates as Butler, Chateaugay or Monterey Shock — all four prisons are slated to close July 26. According to Empire State Development, there is no hard deadline for project applications, and awards will be provided on a rolling basis. If applications are submitted soon after the prisons shut down, funding could be distributed by the end of the year.
Filling a need
Jenkins stressed the need to create jobs and spur economic activity at Mount McGregor, especially after hundreds of employees were displaced. In January, the prison had 320 full-time employees and 455 inmates. As of last week, it had 65 employees and no inmates. Many of those who already left either retired or found work at other prisons in New York.
One way to generate job opportunities in and around the site would be through START-UP NY, an initiative that would allow new, expanding or out-of-state businesses to locate there and pay no state or local taxes for 10 years. The 2014-15 state budget named Mount McGregor and the other three prisons set for closure as eligible sites to participate in the program.
But Jenkins said he doesn’t believe companies would be interested in the mountaintop land and facility, despite computer chip manufacturer GlobalFoundries being a 20-minute drive away.
“My personal feeling is that a casino would work here,” Jenkins said. “I just don’t see a manufacturing company or other companies coming here and trucking up and down the mountain. The site could end up as some form of housing, but that won’t create jobs after construction.”
No developers expressed interest in Mount McGregor for a full-scale casino by the application deadline last month. Although chances seem slim at this point for a casino there, Jenkins said he still believes that would be the best use for the soon-to-be deserted prison. But, Johnson said, “that is certainly off the table.”
“There was a potential for a casino site, but that has come and gone,” Johnson said. “I could definitely support START-UP NY for the site, if that is what it took in order to get the prison redeveloped.”
Under START-UP NY, the site would have to be sponsored by a nearby college or university. Queensbury-based SUNY Adirondack, which has a campus in Wilton within six miles of the site, is considering that option.
“We have not had any comprehensive discussions about Mount McGregor,” said Kristine Duffy, president of SUNY Adirondack. “However, we are open to conversations as ideas may emerge.”
Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, has assisted local officials during the planning process to apply for state funding. She said there are still some unanswered questions, but she ultimately wants any development project that has the potential to create jobs.
“It’s really now in the hands of local officials, and I want whatever they want,” Marchione said. “This is a huge project — trying to figure out how to create jobs after losing more than 300 of them. But the towns are working diligently, and I’m confident the prison will be turned into something great.”