Camp La Guardia may finally take on recreational use worthy of its name.
Orange County officials are considering turning the former New York City homeless shelter into a county park after years of fruitless attempts to sell the 258-acre property in Chester and Blooming Grove for redevelopment.
County Executive Steve Neuhaus pitched the concept at his state-of-the-county speech on Wednesday night, making public for the first time an idea that had been discussed only with administration and legislative leaders. If the proposal comes to fruition, the long-abandoned property off Greycourt Road would become the first new county park in decades in Orange.
How much it would cost to demolish the remaining buildings of the 1,000-bed shelter complex and build park facilities is unclear. But the county is flush with cash that its leaders want to steer to capital projects, both from the $75 million in federal pandemic relief it got last year and booming sales-tax revenue.
The move toward a park signals the end of a 15-year quest to recoup the roughly $10 million taxpayers spent on Camp La Guardia. The county paid New York City $8.5 million for the property in 2007 after the city decided to close its shelter, and then spent $1.2 million in 2016 to cancel a stalled sale to a housing developer.
Another go: Orange County makes latest attempt to resell homeless shelter property
Perhaps crops: County make restore farming at Camp La Guardia property
Water park plans: Talks continue with Great Wolf for resort at Camp La Guardia
County officials were still courting bids as recently as 2020.
But what it got that year was a single, low offer of $1.2 million, made by a group that planned to turn the shelter's oldest structure — a 70,000-square-foot building that first opened as Greycourt Prison in 1924 — into a 100-room hotel and retreat center. They also proposed housing, nature trails, bike paths and a 40,000-square-foot "sports dome" for indoor track meets.
County lawmakers, who must approve any property sales, didn't pursue the offer.
Before announcing the proposal Wednesday night, Neuhaus told the Times Herald-Record that turning the property into a park would be an investment "the whole county could use." Initial ideas include building ball fields and a snow-tubing hill, and leasing a section with fertile farmland for organic farming.
Neuhaus, who was a newly elected Chester town supervisor when the county bought Camp La Guardia, argued the 2007 purchase was made more as a benefit for nearby residents than as a redevelopment project. The homeless shelter had long been a sore point for neighbors in Chester and Blooming Grove, who complained of misbehavior by shelter residents who left the campus.
"Buying it was a quality of life benefit for the county," Neuhaus said by email. "It became a problem when it went from being a quality of life issue to being a money making venture for the County."
The proposed park would be the first addition to the county park system since the state-owned Kowawese Unique Area at Plum Point opened in New Windsor in 1996. The county had bought the 600-acre Winding Hills Park in Montgomery several years before then.
Turning Camp La Guardia into a park would connect the property with the Heritage Trail, an 18-mile, county-owned rail trail that runs from Harriman to Middletown and passes the former homeless shelter. The park also would provide access to another rail bed that is set to be the county's next recreational path.
That planned path, known as the Schunnemunk Rail Trail, would run for 10 miles, from Chester to Salisbury Mills. The nonprofit Open Space Institute, which is collaborating with the county on the $18 million project, spent $1.8 million in December to buy the former railroad segment from businessman David Plotkin, county property records show.
County officials and lawmakers began their ill-fated quest to sell Camp La Guardia shortly after acquiring the property in 2007. By the following year, they were weighing competing bids from developers who proposed a housing-and-business complex, a Greek-themed university and 1,000 homes plus a golf course.
They opted to sell the property for up to $12 million to a Scarsdale developer with plans to build 807 housing units, 165,650 square feet of commercial and office space and 83,000 square feet of retail space.
Those plans spent seven years in limbo, stalled partly by the county's promise to provide sufficient sewer service for the project. The county finally paid Mountco Construction and Development Corp. $1.2 million to get out of the contract.
Neuhaus announced in 2018 that Great Wolf Resorts was interested in buying part of the Camp La Guardia property to build a water-park resort, similar to one it has operated in the Poconos since 2005.
That idea, like all the others for Camp La Guardia, never came to fruition.
The park proposal is subject to the consent of the county Legislature, which would have to approve the use of any county funds to create a park.
Lawmakers have so far approved plans for $34 million of the county's $75 million in pandemic relief funds, and the rest is still available. The county is also piling up taxes from booming sales: it budgeted $19 million in income for February and March of 2022 and wound up up reaping $25 million, 33% more than expected.
Chris McKenna covers government and politics for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.