By Tim Rowland
Hoping to jump-start a flagging grand design to transform Exit 29 on the Northway into a base camp for adventures south of the High Peaks, Essex County has unveiled tentative plans for an equestrian center and trail system on 100 acres it owns along the Schroon River.
The property, located in the Town of North Hudson, is bracketed by the state’s new Frontier Town campground to the south, and the signature A-frame that was once part of the old Frontier Town theme park to the north. The A-frame, which is being refurbished by a private developer, is well along in its restoration and, just to the south, Paradox Brewery has successfully opened for business. But other parts of the original project have stalled.
In 2017, multiple agencies proposed a $32 million investment to create a “world class tourism destination” that included the state campground, and along with retail, food and lodging, a visitor center, recreation opportunities and historical interpretation of Frontier Town.
RELATED: Iconic A-Frame readies to reopen after decades of vacancy
But after completion of the campground, little has been done on the state’s part of the Adirondack Gateway project.
“This has gone stagnant, so we need to figure out how to keep the momentum going,” said Essex County Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland.
The county plan calls for a riding area and trail network for both horses and mountain bikes, along with cleaning up what theme park buildings are not beyond salvaging.
Gillilland said the state’s equestrian camping facilities are not optimized because of the paucity of trails. “People who go horse camping want to have trails to ride on,” he said.
Mountain biking will also be a draw for visitors, said Schroon Supervisor Jeff Subra. “We get asked weekly about mountain bike trails in Schroon Lake, and there are none.”
Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria agrees it’s time to move forward. “I like to believe the governor still supports the Gateway project, but North Hudson is the gateway. Without North Hudson you can forget about the plan, it’s that simple.”
Next steps involve either putting out a request for proposal (RFP) and selling the land, or having the county develop it itself. “We can’t depend on the state, so we’re going to have to grab our own bootstraps,” Gillilland said.
An executive for the Empire State Development Corp. said the agency is in regular touch with local governments, and that the project is still moving forward, despite some setbacks.
The state put out its own RFP for the project, which included the county-owned parcel, but only one developer responded, and dropped out after a year and half. Then COVID-19 hit. The remoteness of the location is also an issue, but state officials believe that once things get back to normal and developers see the progress that’s being made at the interchange they will be more apt to come forward.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency “continues to collaborate with Empire State Development, the town, county and private partners to explore potential projects to further implement the vision for Exit 29 as a recreation hub.”
Improvements to the equestrian camping area in response to feedback continue, she said, including the widening of sites to provide more room for horse trailers; 10-by-10-foot planting pits for young shade trees and other vegetation, hitching posts and fencing; a horse care/wash area; and a manure pit.
Frontier Town was a popular destination in the second half of the 20th century, featuring a Wild West theme with horses, buggies stage coaches and western stores, but it closed in 1998, much of the land reverting to the county for unpaid taxes.
Its most visible lasting landmark is a massive A-frame that was slowly going to seed until it was purchased by Muhammed “Mo” Ahmad, who is restoring it into a multi-use facility that will include visitor information, event space, outfitting gear, food and a museum — many of the items envisioned as part of the original vision.
But instead of receiving state help, Ahmad — whose work on the A-frame has been highly praised — has had to go it alone.
ESD officials are enthusiastic about Ahmad’s progress as well, but say their grant programs are based on job creation, so the A-frame, which ultimately will have a small staff, does not qualify.
Essex County’s land between the A-frame and the Frontier Town campground give it outsized strategic importance. “The county land ties this whole property together,” said North Hudson Supervisor Stephanie DeZalia. “It has tremendous potential.”
DeZalia said the grounds include a handful of the old theme park buildings, some of which are salvageable, some of which are not. But without any direction from the state, she said the county needs to go in and clear out the area, remove what can’t be saved and protect the rest. “People are going over there anyway and we should be putting fences around them,” she said.
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