It will draw thousands, possibly even millions of tourists to Montgomery County. It will be a landmark that both visitors and residents will marvel at for years to come.
That is the vision outlined by World Peace and Health Organization spokeswoman Jennie Wong as she talks about a new archway the group has built on its expansive property in the hamlet of Auriesville off Route 5S.
“All we want to do is make this county more beautiful and show the whole world what a great place this is,” Wong said Tuesday while standing in front of the wooden archway, which is visible from the Thruway. “We were blocked off from our backyard so we are showing people the beauty of our front yard.”
The WPHO created a new entrance point off Route 5S — a gravel driveway running under the arch. The land surrounding the arch is muddy and difficult to walk on, but the group has plans to pave the area and build a parking lot.
Directly behind the archway, the Buddhist group is building a 1,250-step staircase that will lead to the Western Supreme Buddha Temple, a converted Jesuit retreat house that WPHO purchased in 2006.
“The staircase is almost finished,” Wong said. “It will contain 1,250 steps and will lead into the temple.”
Atking Lee, a middle-aged man from China who has spent several years in Montgomery County with the WPHO, said working on the arch “gave him great pride and makes him happy.”
After an amicable start, tensions between the WPHO and the Auriesvile Shrine have escalated, with the shrine blocking access roads to the temple in recent years. Protests, lawsuits and charges of racism followed.
“They are hindering and depriving people from seeing the beauty of our property,” Wong said. “It is an annoyance for everyone and something that we have to try and work around.”
The group constructed the wooden arch with help from roughly 20 volunteers, many of whom traveled from China.
The WPHO is an organization that aims to serve local communities, help local government and promote a healthy lifestyle.
Speaking through an interpreter, WPHO leader Ziguang Shang Shi said the group will not be deterred by the legal wrangles with the shrine.
“We have a goal and we think that we can promote it in Montgomery County,” he said. “Often we get visitors from all over the country and the world who are interested in our group. We have a positive message, one that we think the most influential leaders of the United States would be interested in.”
When they visited Amsterdam several years ago, WPHO leaders said they saw a city that was crumbling and wanted to try to help turn it around.
Through auctions in 2009, the organization bought a large number of properties, many of which were deteriorating and in need of numerous repairs.
But in 2011, WPHO sold the properties to Sunlight Recycling Co., which city officials have called a “dummy corporation.” Amsterdam officials are unhappy that the group’s lofty plans to revitalize the city apparently evaporated. Wong said the group’s relationship with the city is still tense and she hopes it will be remedied in the future.
“We are committed to helping the city and we hope our relationship gets better,” she said.
More from The Daily Gazette: