Saratoga County

Proposals to redevelop former Mt. McGregor prison due May 31

Massive site has potential -- and drawbacks
The former Mount McGregor prison site is up for sale.
The former Mount McGregor prison site is up for sale.

Through many chapters over 140 years, Mount McGregor has hosted resort hotels, a TB sanitarium, a veterans’ rest home, a residence for the developmentally disabled and a prison.

The next chapter may start May 31, as the deadline arrives for proposals for redevelopment of the 325-acre state-owned site with dozens of buildings totaling 550,000 square feet.

Local officials say it’s great place — with great potential but with great challenges to realizing that potential. Multiple potential buyers have toured the facility.

Empire State Development is the state agency handling the potential sale, and it is offering the buyer up to $8 million in assistance with redevelopment. It extended the deadline for proposals from March 31 to give potential buyers enough time to put together their plans.

Moreau Town Supervisor Gardner Congdon said he’s ready for the next chapter to begin.

“I’d like to see something good happen there, but I’d hate to see it rushed through, and not have it developed to its utmost capacity,” he said.

Of the concepts he’s seen — not all of them have reached the public eye — he sees the most potential in a film production studio.

“From what I’ve read, it sounded very good. I would certainly be very supportive of that,” Congdon said. “There have been a couple of others that didn’t make any economic sense or any sense at all.”

The heart of the campus is in Moreau, though the land extends into Corinth and Wilton. Along with the location, on top of a hill at the end of a winding road, the sheer size and scope of the site complicate its redevelopment. A lot of work would have to be done to make it a working prison again, let alone convert the mothballed prison to something else.

“The problem is, it’s too big,” Congdon said. “There’s too much to do to take advantage of it.”

That said, the site also has a lot going for it, he added. That was recognized by its early developers, who built a resort with direct rail service to Saratoga Springs in the late 1800s. 

“It’s magnificent,” Congdon said.

Two economic development agencies in the county are working with potential buyers interested in the site.

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to it,” said Ryan Van Amburgh of the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation. “We’ve been on multiple tours with multiple organizations.”

He said interest has come from a variety of potential users.

“It comes down to what’s the best use for it,” he said, explaining that the goal is not just to sell the site, but to create an economic engine for the area to replace what was lost when the prison closed in 2014 and hundreds of employees dispersed.

Marty Vanags, president of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, said his agency has worked with three potentially interested parties. A big hurdle is the cost any project would carry.

“It’s a solid piece of property,” he said. “It’s going to take a pretty solid investment.”

Is he optimistic that Mount McGregor will turn the corner May 31?

“Economic developers are always optimistic,” he said. “We just need the right person with the right plan.”

If the site is sold, it could go on the tax rolls for the first time in decades. Saratoga County, South Glens Falls schools, and the town of Corinth, Moreau and Wilton all would be in line for a bump in tax revenue.

Congdon said that shouldn’t be a consideration as the state weighs redevelopment proposals.

He wants it to be an asset to the community again, not just a tax asset.

Further, he said, the site may not generate much property tax revenue, especially in its current state.

“Even though the replacement cost is many millions, actual cash value is something different.”


So what does the buyer of the Mount McGregor site get?

A lot, but not everything.

— More than two-thirds of the site — about 750 acres — became part of Moreau Lake State Park in 2015, a year after the prison closed.

— The remaining 325 acres includes the cottage where former President Ulysses S. Grant lived his final days; that’s not for sale, and the buyer will have to maintain a public-access road to it.

— The state will retain ownership of the Lake Bonita reservoir and retain access rights to it, though the buyer of the former prison will be allowed to draw water from it, as the prison did. (Mount McGregor is served by public sewer lines but not public water lines.)

— The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services will retain the rented parcel where it has a broadcast tower, and retain access rights to it.

— The buyer will have to plow and salt the one-mile access route, McGregor Mountain Road, free of charge, as there are private residences on it.

The buildings on the prison campus are an eclectic array of styles and sizes and ages, as one might expect at a site with so many uses through the years. All will have to be brought up to code by the buyer. Any asbestos or other contamination will become the responsibility of the buyer.

ESD, in its request for proposals, traces the history after Duncan McGregor built the small hotel on the mountain that bears his name:

It was redeveloped into the Hotel Balmoral, a luxury resort that burned down in 1897. The Metropolitan Life Company bought the site in 1910 and built a tuberculosis sanitarium that became a self-contained community with its own farm. The state bought it in 1945 and converted it to a facility to help World War II vets readjust to civilian life. That function ended in the 1950s. It was taken over as annex to the Rome State School for the Retarded and became known as the Wilton Developmental Center. It closed in 1975, when a new Wilton Developmental Center opened down the hill on Ballard Road. It reopened as a minimum-security prison in 1976. It added a medium-security area in 1981, and operated as both minimum and medium until 2014, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a wave of prison closures in response to a shrinking inmate census.

Its buildings range from guard huts measuring 28 square feet to a 57,356-square-foot dormitory, with assorted large buildings for laundry, exercise, vocational training, dining, administration, medical treatment and recreation. Construction dates range from 1913 to 2007. The circa-1915 chapel reflects the Mission-style architecture popular a century ago, and a minimum-security inmate dorm still has the upper-story sun porches commonly seen at tuberculosis hospitals in the era before modern antibiotics, when fresh mountain air was a favored TB treatment.

There’s also a firing range, a water treatment plant, an ornamental pond created in the pit where stone was quarried for buildings, a steam plant and steam tunnels, and a historic stone water tower no longer in use.

What becomes of it all may start to come into focus in June.

“The goal of the Request For Proposal process is finding a suitable project that best promotes the reuse of Mount McGregor Correctional Facility, while stimulating job growth and economic development in the community,” Empire State Development said in a written statement. “New York state has engaged the community early and throughout the process, working closely with local officials and community stakeholders to market and highlight the site’s assets in ways that will best serve the individual community.”

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