The plan to rebuild and reinvent the former Frontier Town wild west theme park site in North Hudson has not received much scrutiny, but it’s now being fast-tracked for planning and construction by the state. It’s short on details, but has a $32 million allocated in the new state budget. There are many questions around this project. Generally, the news following Governor Cuomo’s announcement to revitalize the former Frontier Town site has been greeted with great enthusiasm from local government officials and Adirondack leaders, but it has left me scratching my head.
My one clear thought among many questions is that it’s stacking up as one of the great boondoggles of all time.
Frontier Town has long been abandoned and has fallen into disrepair. The lands are now owned by the Town of North Hudson and Essex County, though the actual A-frame and large parking lot (and billboard) at Exit 29 on the Northway are owned privately. Governor Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) budgeted $32 million in various accounts in the new state budget to build a new Intensive Use campground area, equestrian center, commercial facility, day use area, and information and interpretive center, among other things. The details are still being flushed out.
One of the many uncertainties concerns the need for a new state campground. There are two private campgrounds at Exit 29 – the Blue Ridge Campground on the Blue Ridge Road and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Campground across the street from the former Frontier Town site. Should the state be competing with long established local businesses?
Then there’s the question of existing state campgrounds in the general neighborhood. A few miles north on Route 9 is the Sharp Bridge State Campground, which is built on the banks of the Schroon River. A few miles south are major campgrounds at Paradox Lake and Schroon Manor. A bit further away are the Putnam Pond and Roger’s Rock campgrounds. All of these state campgrounds have much more attractive access to beautiful lakes or a wild river. What does a new campground at Frontier Town offer that these nearby campgrounds don’t?
The DEC says that the new campground will be popular because it’s on the shores on the Schroon River. I have canoed this stretch of the Schroon River exactly once. It was interesting and there are beautiful stretches and sandy shorelines on this classic Adirondack meandering river, but the roar of the Northway is continuous and at a half dozen points one canoes alongside the highway. It’s nothing like the Raquette, the Oswegatchie, the Jessup, or Osgood, or any number of other beautiful and remote Adirondack rivers. Campgrounds in the Adirondacks get a lot of return business. Families and extended families camp at many of the Adirondack campgrounds year after year. Think of Fish Creek or Cranberry Lake or Golden Beach or the Lake George Islands or Eighth Lake. I do not foresee how this new campground will build up popular support when it’s sited next to a highway and doesn’t have a great place to swim or hike and does not have boating access to a lake.
Governor Cuomo calls this a “gateway” to the Adirondacks. Should a gateway be built in the center of the Adirondacks or on the boundary? Would it make more sense to improve the rest area/tourism information center south of Northway Exit 17, just outside the Park boundary that Warren County operates? Would it make more sense to improve the newer rest areas on the Northway between exits 29 and 30 that were once billed as High Peaks Information Centers?
And then there are the two existing – and forgotten by the state – Visitor Interpretive Centers (VICs) in Newcomb and Paul Smith’s. These were built with great fanfare by the Adirondack Park Agency during the tenure of Governor Mario Cuomo. They were then abandoned by Governor George Pataki and have been taken over by Paul Smith’s College, SUNY ESF, and local non-profits, but are struggling and have not received any meaningful state support. I think the Newcomb and Paul Smith’s VICs serve as a cautionary tale for the new gateway at Exit 29. In New York there is funding and political support to build new things, but the funding to sustain institutions is less reliable. In lean economic times will the state cut and run like it did with the VICs?
There are other practical issues with the Frontier Town site that demand answers. There is no public water or sewer. The most visible parcel of land is the parking lot and A-Frame at Exit 29 that right now is not part of the project site. Will the state acquire this parcel? People getting off the Northway at Exit 29 will have to hunt for the new facility entrance off of Route 9. Then, what about the long-term staffing costs? Will these positions be DEC staff on a year-round basis or part-time? Will they be Essex County staff? What are the long-term carrying costs of this new gateway and where will the funding come from?
The state has already committed to keeping the old building at the Outer Gooley Club, though it has no plan for what to do with the structure. The state has not done much with the cabin at Duck Hole. The state is currently mulling taking on another building in the Forest Preserve with the old cabin at the 4 Corners on the Boreas Pond tract and is considering a plan to retain the DeBar Lodge. Where is the funding for these buildings?
My biggest question is whether this is the best investment to be made in the Adirondack Park? This is not land for the Forest Preserve, which provides great public outdoor experiences for all people (and all time) and protects the great forests of the Adirondacks, which grows more important each year as lands throughout the northeast U.S. grow more fragmented and developed. This is not a purchase of a conservation easement, which does the same things and helps to support the wood products industry. This is not an investment in major facilities and institutions like the Adirondack Museum, the Wild Center, Gore or Whiteface Ski Mountains, Paul Smith’s College or many other deserving and valued institutions.
I think that there are better investments to be made in the Adirondack Park.
In my mind, I’d much rather see $32 million spent to improve trails and provide public education and to protect the natural resources of the High Peaks Wilderness Area. We’re in the midst of a major, possibly historic, resurgence of public use and enjoyment in the High Peaks. Day use of the area is at an all-time high. Over 33,000 people signed the register to hike Cascade Mountain last year. The first 1,000-hiker winter weekend was recorded there this past winter. The state has a five-year backlog of maintenance projects on the trails and facilities in the High Peaks. This area is the most successful and highly used Forest Preserve area, but is not receiving the support and investment that it needs.
$32 million could also build a lot of boat-washing stations and reconfigure boat launches throughout the Adirondacks to protect lakes and ponds from aquatic invasive species.
We’ll see what kind of public information is released in the months ahead about the Frontier Town project. We’ll see what the final plans are for revitalization of this dilapidated theme park. We’ll see what $32 million in state spending gets. But mostly, I fear, we’ll see a squandered opportunity and poorly conceived investment in the Adirondack Park.
Illustration: The State’s North Hudson Frontier Town Adirondack Gateway Vision Drawing.