New York has closed 17 prisons since 2011. Why their redevelopment has failed

Chad Arnold
Albany Bureau

ALBANY – Not far from the former home of Ulysses S. Grant in Saratoga County lies a different piece of New York's history.

Unlike the final cottage of the 18th president, this landmark hasn't been restored or preserved. It's abandoned; hidden behind unkempt grass and locked gates with signs not to enter.

"Historic Mount McGregor" reads a green vinyl sign welcoming anyone who makes the 3-mile trip from the mountain's base to where the hulking facility sits.

The sign reads like a tombstone, telling the history of the now boarded-up stone buildings first erected in 1913 that ultimately became a massive state prison.

"Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility 1976-2014," reads a line at the bottom of the sign in bold white letters.

"There are a lot of possibilities, but we need to get it into the hands of private enterprise," said Theodore T. Kusnierz Jr., the supervisor of Moreau, where the prison is partly located.

The facility is one of the 17 prisons shuttered by the state since Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011 — a move that saves taxpayers millions annually as New York's prison population continues to decline.

But a review by the USA TODAY Network New York of the former prisons shows that almost of all them have not been redeveloped by either the state or companies, leaving sprawling, vacant properties in communities where the prisons were once the center of activity and jobs.

Of the 15 prisons closed prior to this year, 11 have yet to be redeveloped. And the two that closed this year — including the Livingston Correctional Facility outside Rochester — have no immediate plans to be reused.

A sign fastened to one of the stone buildings of the former Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility tells the history of the now vacant property, which was first erected in 1913.

Cuomo, who has spearheaded a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years, has said prisons should not be economic drivers and has committed millions of dollars to try to jumpstart local economies impacted by the closures.

The facilities themselves, however, are either waiting to be sold or seeking state or local permits to move forward — a process that could take months, if not years, to complete. Most deals have fallen apart.

Most of the prisons are in areas of the state hard-pressed for economic growth.

Kusnierz said he met three times recently with a group of potential investors, but no deal is imminent. The state in 2017 dropped its attempts to sell the property, which is 325 acres with more than 60 buildings.

"Anything that takes and transfers custody of it, or parts of it, from the state of New York back to the local municipalities is going to be a huge benefit to our tax base," he said.

The redevelopment of empty prisons downstate — where most of the state's economic growth has centered in recent years — have fared slightly better.

Four prisons, including three in New York City, are in various forms of being repurposed. 

In Orange County, for example, the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick has been transformed into a burgeoning industrial park that will include processing hemp — which could potentially benefit the entire Hudson Valley region, according to officials there.

Why the closures?

New York's prison population has been declining since the late 1990s.

A drop in violent crime coupled with criminal justice reforms led the inmate population to drop 37% since 1999, from 72,649 to 45,727, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The decrease left most of the 17 prisons — which were either minimum- or medium-security facilities — expendable. The closures save the state $193 million annually, the corrections department estimated.

Prisoners were transferred to other facilities, and most of the workers were able to either transfer or retire. The number of workers in the prison system fell from 31,000 a decade ago to about 28,200 in the current fiscal year, state officials said.

But that has still led to fewer jobs in parts of the state stifled by a slow economy, a fact that hasn't deterred the governor from closing more prisons.

"In my first State of the State address eight years ago, I said prisons are not a jobs program," Cuomo said in a statement earlier this year when he announced the closure of the Livingston Correctional Facility and the Lincoln Correctional Center in Manhattan as part of the state budget.

"Since then, I am proud to have closed more prisons than any governor in history and at the same time proved that New York can remain the safest large state in the nation. But we must do more."

Reason for concern

One of the entrances at   Livingston Correctional Facility in Sonyea.  The medium security prison opened in 1991 and closed in 2019.

To mitigate the impacts of the closures, the state created the Economic Transformation and Redevelopment Program through Empire State Development, the state's economic development arm.

The state allocated $50 million for the program as part of the 2011 state budget and an additional $32 million in 2014.

Empire State Development records showed $59 million has been committed to economic development projects in regions where prisons have closed, mainly for a nanocenter in the Utica area.

"Former correctional facilities have significant potential for redevelopment as centers that can drive economic growth and job creation in communities throughout New York, but it can take time to find the right uses and development teams," the agency said in a statement.

"We continue to work closely with communities around the state to pursue the best possible redevelopment options for these unique sites."   

In the case of the Livingston County prison, which closed Sept. 1, a revitalization plan has yet to be created, Empire State Development officials said.

The lack of an immediate plan has local officials concerned. The prison was once the source of 327 jobs in the rural community and of economic activity.

"Having prisoners housed here from out of the area brought other people into our community — visiting, spending money, staying overnight — which helped the overall economy," said David LeFeber, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. 

Now that it's empty, LeFeber is hoping the state can find a use for the site — and fast: "Being a state taxpayer, I hope that they have some idea of what they're going to do with it or how it can be used."

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Difficulties redeveloping

Overgrown vegetation is the only sign of life at the former Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga County.

Redeveloping the shuttered facilities has proven difficult for the state, leaving communities such as Georgetown, Madison County, where the former Camp Georgetown Correctional Facility ceased operations in 2011, feeling the impact.

"There's not a lot of industry in Georgetown," said Kipp Hicks, executive director of the Madison County Industrial Development Agency. 

The property did sell at auction for $241,000 in 2014 to the Westchester-based Brihat Corp., which hopes to turn the 31-acre parcel into a summer camp before transitioning it into a year-round facility. 

But co-owner Shekar Patel said the company has struggled to raise capital and acquire the key permits required to build on the property.

A necessary sewer permit was only just acquired this past spring, but because the property's electrical lines run through state land, the Department of Environmental Conservation is requiring the company to find an alternative source.

"DEC continues to work with the new property owner and has issued a Temporary Revocable Permit (TRP) to continue electrical service to the property and allow associated maintenance activities while alternate electrical service is obtained," the agency said in a statement.

But finding a new source of electricity will require additional time and money, something Patel said he is short on. He estimates the company has another two years before it will have to cut its losses.

"It took us four years to get this permit to modify our wastewater," he said. "I don't know how many we will need now to get the electricity connected."

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Stalled plans 

Razor-wire surrounds  fencing at   Livingston Correctional Facility in Sonyea.  The medium security prison opened in 1991 and closed in 2019.

Camp Georgetown isn't the only former prison that has faced difficulties in being redeveloped. 

The state abandoned plans to develop the former Butler Correctional Facility in Wayne County outside Rochester since closing it in 2014. It hopes to auction off the property later this year.

Meanwhile, Summit Shock Correctional in Schoharie County in the Mohawk Valley has faced hurdles since being sold to a private developer shortly after closing its doors in 2014.

The new owners sought to use the prison as a junkyard and recycling center, but were forced to withdraw their plans after facing local opposition.

Camp Gabriels in the Adirondacks closed in 2011, but it can't be redeveloped due to the "forever wild" provision in the state's constitution that protects the parkland.

The former Chateaugay Correctional Facility in Franklin County was sold to Alpha Daycare NYC Inc, a Brooklyn-based company, earlier this year. It has been empty for five years, and its future is in flux.

Local officials there don't know what is planned for the 100-acre property. A number for Alpha Daycare was out of service, and the company's webpage has an expired domain name.

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A tale of two states

Former downstate prisons are a different story.

The Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in Staten Island is being turned into a multimillion-dollar film studio that is expected to create 1,300 permanent jobs, according to Empire State Development.

And the state has provisionally approved Urban Green Inc. to turn the former Beacon Correctional Facility in Dutchess County into a multiuse facility that would include a sports complex, community garden and education center.

The company is working with local municipalities on the project and seeking an environmental impact assessment from the state, a process that is expected to be completed sometime next year or early 2021, said Beacon Mayor Randy Casale.  

"It's still a long way out, but it's a plan that would revitalize that property, create some jobs, create some agricultural," Casale said.

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A path forward

In Orange County, the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility may present a blueprint on how to convert a vacant prison.

The state transferred ownership of the facility to the Warwick Valley Local Development Corp. in 2014 after shuttering the facility in 2011.

From there, the LDC, in partnership with local town and county officials, were able to move forward with building plans, said Robert Krahulik, the corporation's president

The transfer took $3.1 million to complete, but the property is now home to a multisport complex, a craft brewery and a school-bus manufacturer. Medical marijuana is also being grown at the site.

The facility is expected to have between 450 and 500 jobs, Krahulik said. 

"This is really the jewel in the crown of a lot of the things we've been doing," said Laurie Villasuso, the acting chief executive of the Orange County Industrial Development Agency.

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A home for hemp

UrbanXtracts is revitalizing an old dairy barn and several buildings on the site of the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick.  Thursday, October 3, 2019.

But the best is yet to come, Villasuso predicted.

The region is home to rich, black dirt, perfect for growing hemp, a crop that has exploded in popularity in recent years due in large part to the demand for cannabidiol extract, or CB.

Farmers in the area have sought to capitalize on the boom, Villasuso said, making the former prison site a potential "hub" going forward.

UrbanXtracts, which is locally owned, is building a CBD extraction center at the prison and a facility to test for psychoactive compounds, which farmers will be able to utilize before bringing their product to market.

The prison is an example of how economic development is supposed to work, Villasuo said. 

"I think this shows an incredible opportunity not just for Warwick but for the Hudson Valley in total."

But while communities such as Warwick push forward, places such as Livingston are left wondering what path their empty prisons will take.

"It's a usable facility that sits there," LeFeber said. 

"Hopefully there'll be some use for it to create jobs for our residents."

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