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Prison reuse plans focus on agriculture

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CHATEAUGAY — The Chateaugay Town Board and its recently hired reuse consultant began to narrow down a list of ideas for the closing Chateaugay Correctional Facility at Monday’s meeting, focusing on uses that would best fit the area’s skill set — particularly agriculture.

They used a list collected by John Tubbs, County of Franklin Industrial Development Agency CEO, at a brainstorming meeting held in December. The list was later submitted to Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency, which has to come up with its own plan of action for each closing prison.

The idea is to use recruiters, companies that pull together individual organizations and potential investors within industry segments.

The facility is around 100 acres, with 20 acres inside the fence, and about 30 buildings — “about 100,000 square feet of buildings,” Tubbs said.

“There are a lot of reuses on there,” said Bob Hest, of R.G. Hest & Associates, a Malone consulting firm specializing in business and government strategy. “I'd like to suggest that we narrow some of these things down here, down to those that are already skill sets that people have around here.”

Hest said he is preparing to submit an application to the Northern Border Regional Commission, which is providing $1.1 million for the state to give out to worthy projects, with up to $250,000 awarded per project. “I don't think we're going to need $250,000,” he said. The application has to be submitted by June 30, and a decision will be rendered by the state by the first week of September.

“There are some strengths in this community that have been around for a long, long time,” He said. “We're not looking at creating nanotechnology — there are no local residents who have the training to fill those jobs.

“Agriculture, the listing that's here, I got to tell you when I was walking through the prison, the dormitories that were being dismantled would make ideal places for what I call controlled environment agriculture. Hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics. The ceilings are high enough so if you're growing vegetables, you're not going to run out of room to grow. There's enough water. There's a ready market for year-round food to be produced. And it's a skill set that a lot of people already have.” Hest explained.

At the moment, most of the northeastern U.S. gets its plant sets from greenhouses in Quebec, he explained.

Hest said that, when a tour of the prison was recently conducted for Chateaugay and county officials, he spent a lot of time talking to Kirby Selkirk, president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, about the need for a meat processing facility.

“You can get your big cuts from Tri-Town [Meat Packing], but the smaller cuts that restaurants would want — they don't have the skills or facilities to break them down,” Hest said. “There's a huge amount of freezer and refrigerator space at the facility. I've asked Kirby and his group to pull together the numbers they would need to do that.”

As the board and Hest went through the list of suggestions, a business planning office, civic/music/athletic event venue, hotel/brewery and retail outlet for the nearby McCadam cheese plant were pushed to the side as unlikely to work. Dorms for North Country Community College were also nixed, because the school has indicated it doesn’t need them. Also shot down were a telephone service center (since most of that work is outsourced overseas) and solar cell production (Hest said he didn’t see much manufacturing capacity in the buildings).

“Most of the companies that we're going to be looking at recruiting are from Canada. They want to come into our market. The Canadian government has created some great incentives to get them to come into the U.S. market,” he said. “The commercial point of entry is a very important asset to what we're trying to do.”

Using the prison for what it was initially built for was also discussed. Suggestions had included a regional jail, a youth detention center or a prison medical facility.

“The county attorney said that the number of youth detainees around the state is huge and it's growing. They're now two to a cell, and they've got young people mixed in with guys who have been in more than once. He suggested that we might want to look at whether DOCS would want to put in a youth detention for the entire state,” Hest said. “I don't know how realistic that is given the fact that they're pulling out.”

Hest said the Franklin County court system is about to undergo some changes in the next few years. “A portion of what now exists could become the county jail. I don't know if this community wants that. Do we want to minimize the amount of tax-exempt land?” he asked.

Board members agreed they would like to keep that possibility open, since it has a decent likelihood of happening.

The possibility of using the buildings as a water processing facility also could work, the board and Hest agreed. The bottled water market is continuing to grow, and there is an artesian well across the road from the facility. Water could also be brought in and bottled. “It's a niche and I think Chateaugay would fit in well,” Hest said.

Hest said he would bring the application for the Northern Border Regional Commission to the next meeting on June 23 for the board to approve before he mails it out.

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