CAROGA - After years of fierce debate, the Caroga Town Board appears poised to sell the former Sherman's amusement park to the non-profit Caroga Arts Collective.
The town acquired ownership of the 8.6-acre property located at Route 10 and Route 29A in 2015 from Gloversville-based attorney George Abdella. Abdella's donation agreement, however, included a number of strings attached to it, including that the property could not be sold to a private developer.
Town Board member Kent Kirch said Abdella has agreed to sign a letter of release that will allow the town to sell Sherman's to the CAC, but no other entity.
"He's always supported allowing us to lease the property to the CAC, but the one thing he has said he would definitely sue us over is if we sold it, but now he recently talked to the CAC's board and agreed to allow the sale," Kirch said. "Typically you do go through a bidding process, but we know through going through the last three years of experience, we don't have a lot of people bidding on that process. The big question is really the Abdella part of the equation where he's willing to release the town from this condition of not selling the property, but only to the CAC."
Another change that's made the sale to the CAC more likely was the results of the 2017 Town Board elections, which saw the election of Kirch, Town Supervisor James Selmser and Town Board member James Long.
Before the election the board had been deadlocked 2-2 with members divided over whether to take Abdella to court to try to free the town from the restrictions in his donation agreement or to attempt to work within the agreement to use the property for the public's benefit by leasing it to a nonprofit.
Before being elected to the town board, Kirch chaired an advisory committee that looked at two proposals for the Sherman's property: one from a private company LLP Management that wanted to build a multi-use location with a hotel, restaurant and entertainment with a long-term plan to eventually purchase the location; the other from the CAC,which wanted to use Shermans for music concerts, farmers markets, educational classes and other public uses.
Advocates for selling the property argued that the possibility of a lawsuit from Abdella was stymying the prospects for selling the property, and that the town should seek a private developer to increase revenue from a for-profit taxable location in order to reduce the tax burden on town residents.
Proponents of keeping the property either in the town's ownership or a non-profit argued it was in the town's interest to maintain the property as a public-use tourism and entertainment venue.
The Sherman’s Advisory Committee in 2017 ultimately chose the CAC, but the board never acted on the proposal.
In 2018 the CAC was allowed to hold a seven-concert series, which included a concert by NBC's "The Voice" winner Sawyer Fredericks and weekly Friday afternoon farmers markets.
Kirch said the town has maintained that it does not believe the ownership conditions in Abdella's donation agreement are legally binding, but the prospect of costly litigation has until now hung over any effort by the town to sell the former amusement park.
"I bet every single person in the town would agree on one thing, that is that Sherman's is the most important piece of property in the town, simply because where it's located and how large it is," he said. "I think it's especially important that the use of that property is a positive one and one that most people would be happy with. Its use is essentially important to the town's Comprehensive Plan."
Kyle Price, the founder and artistic director of the Caroga Arts Collective, said he's had ideas for what he would do with Sherman's if his organization could own it since 2014.
"I grew up in the area, so I've always had that connection to Sherman's. I was probably part of the tail-end of when people were able to go to the carousel and go get ice-cream, so there's a nostalgic association that many of us have who are from Caroga," he said. "As I got older and started the Caroga Lake Music Festival in 2012 and then the Caroga Arts Collective, it was always on my mind that this amazing space that used to have these great concerts and these great family events and could be a catalyst for events in the town was no longer being used."
Price said his first Sherman's-related event was the Sherman's Revival concert series in 2015, which showed him that the venue could be revitalized.
The CAC recently received a $125,000 "matching grant" from an anonymous donor, which could be used for new construction at the location, if the CAC had ownership of it and could get financing for a mortgage.
A May 2016 property summary of the site showed the property currently has four main buildings that are in need of updates and improvements, including a single-story pavilion and carousel house, a dining hall, a bathhouse and several small outbuildings.
"To get a mortgage on the property, you need to own it. So, thinking about fundraising and getting corporate sponsorships at a higher level would allow us to build state-of-the-art facilities and one of the other benefits to owning it is we can dictate different things that happen [in] programming at Sherman's, and also we can have a more streamlined way of taking requests, if someone has a wedding or the Wheelerville School wants to do something, they won't have to go through all of the hoops of the Town Board," Price said.
Kirch and Price both said they are hopeful the town can come to a sale agreement before the end of the year, and neither revealed any details about price.
Kirch said one final stumbling block to the sale might be an effort to require a "permissive referendum," which could happen if opponents of a board action to allow the sale are able to gather approximately 50 signatures on a petition.
"Given the controversy over the property, it's not difficult for me to see that happening," he said.
Price said he believes his organization has demonstrated it can be a good steward of the Sherman's property, so would not fear a referendum vote on the subject.