What's next for Watson Homestead in Painted Post after becoming part of YMCA

An historic partnership in Steuben County is entering a new era as the YMCA of Greater Rochester announced Thursday that it has acquired the Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center

Chris Potter
The Leader

PAINTED POST — For 50 years, generations of Steuben County youth have visited the scenic Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center for Camp Corning’s day camp in Painted Post.

This year, though, will be unlike any other.

An historic partnership in Steuben County is entering a new era as the YMCA of Greater Rochester announced Thursday that it has acquired the Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center. The property will be rebranded as “The Y at Watson Woods” moving forward as it continues to serve the area.

“It has always been part of the YMCA’s strategic plans to grow our residential services and offerings for families,” said Mike Stevens, Chief Strategy Officer of the YMCA of Greater Rochester. “This beautiful property presents an excellent opportunity to accomplish our goals of providing a space for families, outside of traditional in-branch offerings. We could not be more thrilled to embark on a new journey in the greater Corning community with The Y at Watson Woods.”

Countless members of the YMCA and the Steuben County community have utilized the Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center over the last five decades of the partnership. The Y at Watson Woods will continue to host the YMCA Camp Corning Day Camp, while also providing a place for longtime guests of the retreat and conference center to hold events for spiritual reflection, officials said.

Planning is underway to include additional family and overnight experiences. Stevens believes the Watson property can play a key role in returning a sense of normalcy to children and families amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re watching kids melt away. Kids are really struggling right now,” said Stevens. “We’re behind masks, we don’t even get the chance to understand emotion. My son said to me, ‘When am I going to get my childhood back?’ Camp is one of those places that, to me, screams 'childhood.' It screams opportunities to engage with people from all different backgrounds and have fun and be a child.”

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What’s new at Watson Woods

Executive Director Brian Dana will lead all programming at The Y at Watson Woods. Dana previously directed Camp Gorham in the Adirondacks before serving as a membership director in California.

While Watson Woods will continue to host the day camp and group gatherings, weddings and conferences for the general public, it is planning to expand programs for youth and families.  

“We’re going to add weekend and weekday adventures for families to be able to come and experience Watson with all of what we have offer. Whether it’s our rock wall, our archery range, our crafting room, we have a plethora of family activities,” said Dana. “We’ve hosted Camp Corning of the Corning YMCA for the last 50 years. It will be hosted at The Y at Watson Woods as it has been, but now it will be facilitated and run by The Y at Watson Woods which is certainly an exciting development.”

The YMCA plans to make some immediate improvements to the property this year, with a $100,000 capital investment on tap in 2022. Its broader vision for the property is expected to unfold over the next three to five years.

The first formal community event to be held at The Y at Watson Woods will be the annual Maple Sugaring Weekend March 18-20.

A look inside the Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center in Painted Post, which has been acquired by the YMCA of Greater Rochester and rebranded “The Y at Watson Woods."

As for the new name, Dana said the decision came easily.

“When you come to Watson, the core of the magic of this facility is the woods that we have,” said Dana. “We sit on 400-plus acres and the vast majority of that is old-growth forest with hiking trails. It’s a real gem. That’s our biggest asset, for sure.”

Dana has been on-site serving as the executive director since Labor Day preparing for the transition.

“I think that gave both organizations the confidence that this was going to move forward, it was going to be realized,” said Stevens. “It has allowed us to really hit the ground running. We’re not shuttered. We’re open for business. We’re hosting weddings, we’re hosting family weekends. This isn’t a pause in activity, it is immediately hitting the throttle and beginning to move forward with this tremendous resource and the tremendous transition that’s occurring in hopes of hosting even more families at the site.”

The YMCA of Greater Rochester unveiled a new logo for The Y at Watson Woods Thursday after announcing the acquisition of the Watson Homestead Conference & Retreat Center in Painted Post.

How Corning Inc. impacted the transition

The transition from the Watson Homestead to the Watson Woods began more than two years ago, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stevens said the initial discussions were facilitated by Corning Inc., longtime partners of both the YMCA and Watson Homestead.

“Corning Incorporated has a long history of investing in the communities its employees call home. We’re delighted that our decades of commitment to Watson Homestead will now be built upon by the visionary leadership of the Rochester Y,” said Chris Sharkey, President of Community Engagement for Corning Incorporated.

The parties first explored a management agreement, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shuttered both operations for a time. When talks resumed, the Watson Homestead’s Board of Directors decided the time was right to transition the property to the YMCA.

“This is a tremendous leap of faith,” said Stevens. "It’s the greatest example of putting trust into another organization -- when you decide to dissolve your organization and then become a YMCA of Greater Rochester branch. This wouldn’t have happened without them, their trust and their leadership.

“The great work we’ve done at the Corning YMCA over the past five-plus years demonstrates to the community and I think provides them a level of confidence that we will take this tremendous community asset and continue to advance it forward for all.”

Chris Potter can be reached at cpotter@gannett.com or on Twitter @ChrisPotter413. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.