Somewhere along the line, the $1 billion dream the Chinese Buddhist group had for Amsterdam and the region evaporated into the hills and valleys of Montgomery County.
The latest blistering salvo from the mayor of Amsterdam and counter-barbs from the World Peace and Health Organization cement a truth that has been long coming: A promised harmony and economic bonanza for the region flowering from the group’s arrival will never materialize.
There will be no hotel. No dozens of rehabilitated houses. Probably no country retreat, either.
It may never have even been more than a dream in the first place, but in the past four years there has been little peace for the WPHO. And its relationship with local leaders, from city officials to the Catholic Church, has been far from healthy.
“Both sides are looking for a peaceful co-existence,” said Carmel Greco, a local attorney and lay board member for the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in the town of Glen, which has been embroiled in an acrimonious property dispute with the WPHO that has spilled over into protests and lawsuits, “but the definition of a peaceful co-existence is different from one side to the other.”
Instead of development, Amsterdam is left with foreclosed, boarded-up houses. Instead of goodwill, the Buddhist group feels oppressed and pressured to leave the area. Charges of promises unkept are countered with accusations of racism and abandonment. The barriers between the WPHO and the community around it are both metaphorical and literal.
All sides believe the group of mostly Chinese people, facing cultural and language barriers, are well-intentioned.
So what went wrong?
“It’s not a simple answer,” said Jerry Skrocki, an Amsterdam neighbor, blogger and photographer who has advocated on behalf of the Buddhists.
He said prejudice, cronyism and selective enforcement have been applied against the WPHO. But the group must also shoulder some blame, he added.
“A lot of their ideas are good — initially,” he said. “The follow-through is the problem.”
The latest rift was exposed Tuesday, when Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane sent a scathing email to the group calling it “disingenuous” and costly to the city.
“You have fostered great difficulty in our community and will cost our city hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she wrote.
Thane was responding to an invitation to attend a Buddhist enlightenment celebration. Initially a defender of the group, Thane said she and her staff have “been very frustrated over the years” with the WPHO.
In August 2010, the WPHO was the high bidder for 48 properties in a foreclosure auction. Rumors and worries soon surfaced: Who are these people? What are their plans?
At a news conference and community meeting 11 days later, the leader of the WPHO told residents his group planned to renovate and inhabit the buildings. The plan was to rehab the residences for investors coming from Asia to support leader Ziguang Shang Shi’s goal of bringing health to the city and nation. The leader, speaking through a translator, said they would pay taxes on the residences.
Plans included developing a solar power-generating facility and a deluxe hotel in Amsterdam. There was talk of $1 billion in investment. Shi foresaw an Amsterdam on the Mohawk River as glorious as the one on the Amstel River in the Netherlands.
The group was buying other properties, including two former Roman Catholic churches in Amsterdam that have been retrofitted into Buddhist temples: St. Casimir’s on East Main Street and St. Michael’s on Grove Street. It also bought a 200-acre parcel in Ephratah with plans to turn it into a retreat. That property has not been developed.
There were grand plans, and a pipeline of cash from Asia. Still, community opposition lingered, prompting the WPHO to pull out of a 2010 plan to buy the mostly vacant Bacon Elementary School for more than $450,000.
There were early warning signs of concern with the housing purchases in Amsterdam, Thane said.
“The group went into this property purchase really wide-eyed and naive about what rehabilitating abandoned properties requires,” she said.
Thane said the group did no prior inspections, tried to do too much of the work on its own, despite not have plumbing, electrical or roofing experience, and bought supplies retail and with cash — all against the advice of city officials. Some of the work was done without the necessary permits, and violations piled up, she said.
“I think they unnecessarily spent more than they should have spent and got in way over their heads,” Thane said. “And when they got into trouble, they wouldn’t take our advice.”
Shi said the group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the properties and their rehabilitation and thought the mayor would help them with some tax breaks that never materialized. The group also said police did not help enough with burglary and vandalism problems.
The Buddhist group brought the mayor’s email to the media’s attention Wednesday. Shi called Thane a “liar.”
“We thought that if we put money into the property, the mayor would help us with some tax breaks,” Shi said, “but that did not happen.”
Thane countered that granting such a targeted tax break, especially “because someone bought more property than they should have,” is illegal. As for the vandalism, she said that is an unfortunate fact of life for shuttered buildings in a city.
Skrocki called Thane’s email “unprofessional,” but agreed with the mayor that the group was naive.
“They made a foolish purchase at a city auction … and tried to help bring the city back,” he said.
The neighbor said Amsterdam could have done more to make the overly ambitious plan work.
A year after WPHO bought the properties, 37 parcels were sold for $1 apiece to Sunlight Recycling Co., an LLC that listed an abandoned Amsterdam building as its address. Shi said he did not have much contact with the owner and said the company is based in China or Vietnam and was looking to rip the pipes and wiring out of the houses to sell as scrap. More than two years later, these homes remain boarded-up eyesores.
Thane labeled Sunlight Recycling a “dummy corporation.” The company’s so-called headquarters at 5 Vedder St. is boarded up and has been condemned by the city Engineering Department. The company has not paid taxes on the properties in over two years, and in 2014, the city foreclosed on all 37 properties that list Sunlight Recycling as the owner. The city is looking to collect $230,000 in unpaid taxes from the owner it cannot locate.
Residents who live near the properties worry the blighted buildings will diminish the value of their homes and hurt the reputation of their neighborhoods. Margaret Weiderman, a resident of Division Street for decades, said she wasn’t aware of any plans WPHO originally had — and doesn’t care.
“They just need to do something,” she said. “What was the point of getting all these properties and then just leaving them like this?”
Weiderman added that the condemned homes have become a hangout for young children; she is worried that if the roof collapses someone could get seriously injured.
“You never know what can happen,” she said. “It has become a dangerous situation.”
City Community and Economic Development Director Robert von Hasseln called blight one of the region’s biggest problems and said it costs the city hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
“Blight drains money from the fire and police departments, drives down the value of neighboring homes and the city loses tax revenue,” he said.
Over the past five years, Amsterdam has demolished around 90 blighted buildings, at a cost of more than $6 million, according to von Hasseln.
Thane said in addition to the lost tax revenue, some of the buildings have to be demolished, at a cost to the city of $20,000 to $40,000 each or more. As for the promised $1 billion in development?
“I haven’t see any evidence that there is a pool of money out there that can find its way to Amsterdam,” Thane said.
“We never lied. We never turned our back on them. They turned their back on Amsterdam.”
Meanwhile, acrimony also reigns between the group and the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, also know as the Auriesville Shrine. In 2006, the Buddhist group purchased the Jesuit Retreat House from the shrine and converted it into the Western Supreme Buddha Temple. But in the past two-plus years, tensions between the shrine and Buddhists have escalated, with the shrine blocking access roads to the temple. Protests, lawsuits and charges of racism followed.
Greco said under the agreement to purchase the property, the Buddhists agreed to build their own entrance in three years.
“They didn’t live up to that,” he said.
People at the temple said their access — and access by emergency responders and mail carriers — was cut off without notice when the shrine put up first barricades, then a fence. The WPHO has said on more than one occasion they believe shrine officials want them to leave — an allegation Greco denied.
“I have never heard that said, not once,” the attorney said.
At the same time, numerous signs were placed on shrine property saying “NO DOGS” — which the Chinese Buddhists take as a racial slur directed at them. The shrine has denied any racial antagonism.
The sides are still engaged in a lawsuit over the access road; meanwhile, the temple still seeks to build a road of its own, but has run into literal roadblocks: Construction was stopped when it was revealed a portion of that road encroached on shrine property.
Both Thane and Greco said cultural and language barriers may have led to misunderstandings that compounded problems. For example, Thane said maybe mayors in China can just adjust taxes, and houses can be altered without proper permits.
What does the WPHO think went wrong? After two days of trying to pose the question, WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong returned messages via a text Friday, saying she was out of town and could not comment for a story.
Like others, Thane is just not sure what went wrong, only that it did. The word officials keep coming back to is “frustrating.”
“Neither side means ill will,” Greco said. “Things just didn’t go smoothly.”