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What to do with mothballed prisons? (File photo)
What to do with mothballed prisons? (File photo)

Town struggles with future of mothballed prison

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The former Camp Gabriels prison north of Saranac Lake has sat empty for more than a year. When the state tried to auction the 92-acre property last year, there were no buyers.

Earlier this month, Brighton town supervisor John Quenell circulated a private letter suggesting that the community might consider taking ownership of the facility.

But at a packed town meeting last night, many local residents said the project would be too expensive. Brian Mann reports.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

In a letter sent privately to some town residents, supevisor John Quenell raised what he described as a premise that some kind of town ownership might be worth considering.

”What might be all the things that the town of brighton could do with the Camp Gabriels land and building?” Quenell wrote.

He urged local residents to come to a public hearing and focus on what he called a “positive possibility.”  Quenell spoke at the meeting last night.

 “I said as a premise that possibly the town could take the property,” Quenell said last night.  “Given that as a premise, what would you like done with it?”

Quenell argued that the property might be managed in a way that added no cost to taxpayers. 

He tried to organize a sort of brainstorming session, but other town officials demanded that the session be a more traditional public hearing, with locals simply allowed to stand and speak. 

“As a public hearing, we are as a board here at the pleasure of the town people to listen to what they have to say,” said board member Lydia Wright.  “Not necessarily to direct the meeting.”

Most of the views raised last night were sharply hostile to the idea of the town getting involved.  Brian Brian McDonnell sat on the town’s Citizens Redevelopment Committee.

He argued that the property’s 48 buildings were dilapidated and outdated and would be expensive to restore and maintain.

“We’re not going to get it for a dollar and then everything rosy going to happen.  There’s going to be a lot of investment, if we’re going to do anything.  Right now, we’re not in investment mode.  We’re in hang on to your shorts mode.”

Some locals did see some opportunity for the community to get involved.  Pat Willis is a local historian and pointed out that many of the buildings at Camp Gabriels date back to the tuberculosis era and have important architectural value.

“The town of Brighton would very much like to have a historic museum there.  A historic museum and library,” Willis argued.

But most of the sentiment was opposed to the notion of the town taking over the land.  

“I don’t feel that this is a burden that we would be taking upon ourselves,” said resident Tracy Santagate.

“Those who do feel they want Camp Gabriels, by all means invest your own money.  Do not speculate with my tax dollars.”

The effort to find a new future for Camp Gabriels has been complicated by the fact that the facility has been left unheated for more than a year with very little maintenance.

Brian Brian McDonnell says the lack of upkeep has made selling the 92-acre parcel more difficult.

“The buildings haven’t been opened up since the place was closed,” he pointed out.

“There was black mold in several of the metal buildings.  A lot of the [potential buyers] who were walking through recognized that, so the state didn’t do us any favors by just closing everything up.”

If Governor Andrew Cuomo does propose closing more state prisons, meetings like this could become far more common in the North Country, as facilities that were once economic engines become white elephants sitting at the heart of small towns.  

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