CAROGA -- After years of fierce political debate, multiple lawsuits and a failed referendum, the non-profit Caroga Arts Collective is now the owner of the former Sherman's Amusement Park, although the previous owner is keeping the beach front and has retained ownership of the park's carousel and Ferris wheel.
On Dec. 31 Gloversville-based attorney George Abdella, through his corporation Balboaa Land Development, filed a quitclaim deed to transfer ownership of Sherman's to the Caroga Arts Collective for the sale price of $1. Abdella and CAC Chairman Rick Ruby signed the deed.
Ruby, owner of furniture store Ruby & Quiri, said the CAC will now begin the process of raising the money necessary to transform the location into a world class musical performance venue and community center, similar in concept to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
He said the CAC has received the financial backing of Brad Dake, who has promised to match any individual donation of up to $10,000 to the CAC, with no limit on the number of donations he'll match.
"The whole idea is to have Sherman's become the centerpiece of the community again, and going back to when it was donated to the town it hasn't been utilized to the degree that everyone would like," Ruby said.
Abdella said he decided to retain ownership of the carousel and Ferris wheel because he wants to make certain they remain with the park. The quitclaim deed states Abdella and the CAC will both have use of the attractions, and he will maintain them. He said the CAC can charge for the use of the rides and he has no business interest in them other than he doesn't want them removed.
"I'm not in this to make money," Abdella said. "I don't want anybody to take away the carousel for any reason whatsoever — that's part of Caroga Lake. I want control of that because it's a very rare, beautiful thing that I put my heart and soul in. There's some talk of moving it to another spot, within the park, so I want to make sure I have a say in whatever happens with that."
Many of the residents of Caroga have had much to say about the fate of the approximately 8-acre Sherman's property located at routes 10 and 29A on West Caroga Lake. The property is considered by many to be both the most valuable property in Caroga and the sentimental heart of the town, having provided many in the region with memories of visiting the classic 1921 lakeside amusement park, with its vintage carousel ride, Ferris wheel, dance hall, bumper cars and soft ice cream.
This is the second time Abdella has donated the property. He donated it to the town of Caroga in 2014 through a complex donation agreement which prohibited the town from selling it without his permission.
After the donation the question of what to do with Sherman's became a passionately contested political battle, with one faction of town residents wanting to sue Abdella to determine if the restrictions in his donation agreement were legal, and the other in favor of selling the property to the CAC for about $50,000.
Abdella approved of the town selling to the CAC, but initiated a lawsuit to regain ownership of the property after all of the town candidates in favor of the sale to CAC were defeated during the June 2019 Republican Party primary. The opponents of the sale wanted to use the land for commercial purposes, which weren't allowed under the donation agreement between Abdella and the town.
A referendum for the town to sell the property to the CAC was defeated on Nov. 5, with 344 votes against the sale and 210 in favor of it.
The referendum, however, was mute. State Supreme Court Judge Richard Kupferman in late October approved a settlement agreement between Abdella and the town of Caroga in October. The town gave back the property and Abdella agreed to drop his demand for $3.1 million in damages he alleged from the town's failure to maintain the property in accordance with the donation agreement.
At the time of the settlement, Robert Abdella, George's son, indicated his father was going to give the property to the CAC. He also said there would be no tax write-off associated with the CAC donation, as there was when the property was donated to the town.
The deed, filed Dec. 3, breaks off the West Caroga Lake beach portion of the property.
Abdella said he decided to keep the beach this time with the idea that he might develop or sell to developers 100 acres he owns nearby which could be turned into an RV Park. He said the beach front could be used as lake access for the RV Park, if it's ever built.
"They didn't want the beach," Abdella said. "They aren't running a beach, there's a lot of responsibilities that go with running a beach."
Ruby said the CAC was glad to receive Abdella's donation, and there were no "negotiations" about the terms.
Both Ruby and Abdella indicated the donation agreement includes language giving Abdella the right of first refusal for any sale of the property.
"I'm giving it away, why would I want them to sell it to a third party," Abdella said. "If I wanted to, I could've sold it and made money."
The quitclaim deed includes a provision indicating the donation agreement between the two parties was to be attached as part of the deed filed with the Fulton County Clerk's Office. The donation agreement was not attached and officials with the Fulton County Clerk's Office said the agreement was never given to them.
Abdella said the agreement was supposed to be filed with the clerk and he believes an oversight was made by the attorney he hired to execute the deed transfer. He said the donation agreement will be filed with the clerk soon.
Over the past two years the town had allowed the CAC to hold events at Sherman's, including the Sherman’s Revival Series, SaundersFest, Caroga Tree Lighting, and the Red, White, Blues & Bluegrass Festival. Since being formed in 2012, the CAC has presented over 175 free events with more than 550 musicians, including winners of Grammy awards, NBC’s "The Voice," "America’s Got Talent," and various international competitions.
CAC President Kyle Price said the group will be able to greatly expand its capabilities now that it owns Sherman's.
"We're going to build a world-class performance center," Price said.
Price said the CAC received a $41,700 grant from New York state for the purpose of hiring a general manager, which will help with the capital campaign. He said the preliminary fundraising goal is for $125,000 to match donations from Dake for a total of $250,000. They want to build a small indoor-outdoor amphitheater.
Dake, a former area resident who now lives in a Southern state, said Price's estimate of building a $250,000 structure is likely far below the amount that will be spent at Sherman's.
Dake, who is not a member of CAC but is interested in the project, presented his vision of the performing arts venue. He presented a series of renderings, maps and photos to approximately 250 people at a forum at the Wheelerville Union Free School held in October, prior to the settlement of Abdella's lawsuit.
"This facility, as I described [during my presentation] at Wheelerville school, will be upwards of half of a million dollars. I think this could all cost closer to $1 million if it were done in two or three phases. Stage one will probably be some kind of covered concert stage."
Dake drew a parallel to Saratoga Springs. He said the opening of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1966 helped spur more than 50 years of growth in Saratoga Springs and has allowed it to prosper.
Caroga Supervisor Scott Horton, who has credited his election in November to his opposition to the proposed sale to the CAC, said he supports economic growth and will be supportive of the CAC's efforts.
He's not very happy about George Abdella's decision to keep the beachfront of the property though.
"I think he's kicking the sand of that beach into the eyes of the townspeople!" Horton said. "The CAC had said they were going to keep that beach available for the residents of the town, but now they can't live up to that commitment."
Horton questioned how Abdella was able to subtract the beach part of the parcel after the town had consolidated all four parcels into one property. He said Abdella should have had to go through the Town Planning Board process to subdivide the parcel.
George Abdella said if he is required to go through a subdivision process he will do so.