NORTH HUDSON -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to build an regional visitors' center at the former Frontier Town theme park at Northway Exit 29 isn't the first time the state has tried to attract more visitors to the Adirondack Park's mountains, or sunk millions of dollars into the concept.
The "High Peaks Welcome Centers" on either side of the Northway just a few miles north of Frontier Town were going to fill that role, and more than 25 years ago there was construction of the two state "visitor interpretive centers" in Newcomb and Paul Smiths, intended to orient visitors to the Adirondacks' natural surroundings.
Neither of those efforts have really achieve the goal. So why should the $32 million plan for the former Frontier Town at Northway Exit 29 be any different?
Both local officials and environmental groups point to its location in the Northway's shadow and easy access to recently acquired state lands, including the Boreas Pond Tract and Essex Chain of Lakes.
"I think this is going to be a big boost to our economy and be sort of a jumping off point for the various recreations we can offer," said North Hudson Town Supervisor Ron Moore. "I'm hoping it will be great not just for North Hudson but for all of Essex County and all of the entire area."
A key ingredient in the Adirondack Gateway Center would be a local brewery and "saloon" offering food -- something that neither the visitor interpretive centers or the Northway welcome centers have, apart from vending machines and snacks. One of the reasons, local officials think, is that state officials have listened more closely in the past to their concerns about finding ways to boost the local economy.
"Definitely, I think local government feels the governor and (Department of Environmental Conservation) and the state in general feels more like they're being listened to and there's better relations," said Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency Local Government Review Board and a former Chester town supervisor.
But the previous efforts had other problems, too -- one of the biggest being location.
"The visitor interpretive centers were well-designed and well-staffed, but were really well off the beaten path," said John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council, the park's largest conservation group. "Unless you drove by it, you wouldn't know it was there."
The visitor interpretive centers opened in 1989 and 1990 under state auspices, but were located miles of the Northway in areas without significant commercial services and were largely unsuccessful in attracting new visitors. The state gave both up in 2011, with Paul Smiths College taking ownership of the northern center, and SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry taking over the Newcomb center.
The Northway welcome centers, which cost the state about $17 million, offer far more tourist brochures than most rest areas and large wildlife murals, but are basically still interstate roadside rest areas, though contained in larger buildings designed to resemble Adirondack Great Camps. They opened in 2002. Though State Police and originally the U.S. Border patrol were to have stations there, in practice they are unstaffed.
"Those rest areas were very, very nice and they were supposed to have the Border Patrol and so on, but I would agree they didn't bring anybody into town, they weren't near any exits and they really just replaced the old South Schroon rest areas, which closed," Moore said.
Frontier Town, meanwhile -- while it can evoke wistful memories of horses, cowboys and buckboard wagons in those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s -- ultimately lost out in the competition for the summer vacation dollar, and closed in 1998. Essex County and the town of North Hudson eventually took the roughly 300-acre site for unpaid back taxes, creating the opportunity for them and the state to redevelop the land. As a first step, the DEC expects to dip into the Environmental Protection Fund to buy conservation easements on the land, preventing other future development.
The towns of North Hudson, Newcomb, Minerva, Indian Lake and Long Lake last year went into partnership with the state and the Open Space Institute to develop a master plan for how the site could be used to promote Boreas Ponds, the Essex Chain and other nearby lands the state acquired from The Nature Conservancy after that organization bought 161,000 acres of former Finch Pruyn forest lands in 2007. Exit 29 is at the confluence of state Route 9 and the Blue Ridge Road, which leads west to the new lands.
The results of that plan emerged last month, when Cuomo's proposed 2017 state budget outlined the ambitious plans.
"The Gateway to the Adirondacks will be a world-class tourism hub at a strategic location to attract new visitors to the Adirondack Park and drive economic activity in the North Country," Cuomo said in an announcement.
A key ingredient will be beer: Paradox Brewery of Schroon Lake will be investing $2.8 million in a brewery, tasting room and "saloon" offering various beers and food at the site.
With the property including thousands of feet of frontage on the Schroon River, the plans also include a 100-site campground and horseback-riding trails, an event center, information center and interactive exhibits on the history, present and future of the wood products industry in the Adirondacks. The brewery is expected to add 22 jobs, and somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs have been projected, though some of those will be seasonal.
Local officials are putting high hopes into the planned link to a larger "community connector" snowmobile trail network and some other ideas, like shuttle buses that could take hikers to trailheads, which could reduce the vehicle congestion around some parking areas.
Use of the High Peaks wilderness area has grown to the point where the DEC and environmentalists are concerned about both traffic safety and the quality of the hiking experience, and some think a visitor center at Exit 29 could divert some hikers away from the High Peaks, which are most commonly reached via Exit 30.
"I think it will take away some of the pressure from the High Peaks area," Moore said.
There's an ongoing debate about whether the 20,000-acre Boreas Ponds tract will have motor vehicle access. Groups like the Adirondack Council are arguing that a wilderness classification, which would keep vehicles away from the ponds, would be best. Sheehan said that would be good for local economies as well as the health of endangered species and wildlife.
"From all our market research and experience to date, the High Peaks Wilderness is by far the most popular wilderness experience in the Northeastern United States," Sheehan said. "Our proposal for expanding the High Peaks Wilderness (by adding the Boreas tract) would bring the High Peaks Wilderness right to Exit 29."
Moore, like other local government leaders, says the old Finch Pruyn road into the Boreas Ponds should remain open, and will never be busy in the way trailheads off state Route 73 in the High Peaks are.
"You'd be driving seven miles into the interior. It's a totally different experience," he said.
Construction of the Gateway Center will depend on funding in the state budget. While there's some hope Paradox Brewery can start work late this year, most construction isn't expected to start before 2018. The Essex County Industrial Development Agency is expected to oversee the project's development.