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Improvements planned for Grant Cottage site

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A gazebo would be constructed at the eastern overlook of Mount McGregor, where author Mark Twain reportedly once looked out, and the precipice would be made easier for disabled people to get to, under a new master plan for the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage National Historic Landmark.

“I should not have missed it for anything: for, in connection with its historic associations, I consider that it presents the grandest scenery that I know of in America,” Twain said, when he visited Grant at the cottage, as Grant was dying from throat cancer, according to a July 3, 1885, report in The Morning Star of Glens Falls.

A replica of the rail platform, where Grant arrived at the cottage shortly before his death, and multitudes of visitors arrived to see him, would be built as an educational orientation area, as part the conceptual plan to guide development of the state-owned, privately run historic site for the next 10 to 15 years.

The stairs would be rebuilt that once led to the historic Balmoral Hotel that was near the cottage when Grant stayed there.

An events pavilion, with space for 100 people, an outdoor education and play space, and a memorial garden, are among other improvements in the plan, which the L.A. Group of Saratoga Springs prepared.

“This is kind of a vision of a couple of landscape engineers of what can be done with the facility,” said Tim Welch, president of Friends of Grant Cottage, the private organization that operates the site. “A good deal of it is not something we would do any time soon.”

Welch said it would be difficult to estimate a price on the totality of the improvements envisioned, because improvements would be done over time as funding is available, and some may ultimately not be done at all.

“This is a 10- to 15-year look out to the future,” he said. “None of this can be done quickly, and all of it would need to be done with grants and private contributions, with a little help from the state.”

To that end, Friends of Grant Cottage is excited that earlier this year the federal government designated the cottage a “National Historic Landmark.”

The designation qualifies Friends of Grant Cottage to apply for federal grants under a special category of the National Park Service budget.

“It does put us on the map as far as the National Park Service,” without making the site an actual national park, Welch said.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, assisted in the six-year application process.

Grant Cottage, which faced uncertainty when the adjoining Mount McGregor Correctional Facility closed in 2014, now has a bright outlook.

National Grid had estimated it would cost $750,000 to run a new power line up the mountain to service the cottage and visitor center.

That cost was avoided when a solar system recently was installed on the property at no cost to the Friends.

A fire suppression system is being installed at the cottage this fall.

Planning and legal work is almost completed to connect the cottage with Moreau State Park, in one direction, and Saratoga Springs, in the other direction, with a bicycle and pedestrian trail that would become part of a proposed “Alternative Northway” trail system.

“It’s a work in progress,” said David Gibson, managing partner of the environmental group Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, which has advocated for the trail system.

Gibson has said the new trail system would be a compelling alternative to hiking in the High Peaks, which is threatened by overuse.

The immediate challenge is to establish more parking, both for cottage visitors and for cyclists and hikers that would park at the cottage to travel the trail system in one direction or the other.

“That’s (the new trail system) another one of the reasons why we are concerned about parking,” Welch said.

Moreau and Wilton officials have been meeting with Friends leaders to discuss ways to establish more parking and potentially for the towns to provide in-kind services to develop the parking space, said Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz, who also is chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.

The cottage property is on the border between the two towns.

“You don’t want an individual to have to drive away (because no parking is available) without taking a tour and making a purchase at the visitor center,” Kusnierz said.

Ideally, the state Department of Correction would turn over a 5-acre softball field complex at the former correctional facility to the Friends for parking and other uses, Welch said.

“So, there’s a little hesitancy on the part of the state to separate that piece of property,” likely because it would decrease the value of the correctional facility site for redevelopment, Welch said.

Kusnierz said he has had conversations with several developers who, at one point, had interest in the former correctional facility site, but nothing has come to fruition.

“It’s all predicated on the fact that the state has to be willing to sell it for a reasonable price,” Kusnierz said. “It’s very challenging for anybody to come in there.”

Possible re-uses of the site have included a mixed-use residential, retail and service business complex, a law enforcement training center and a conference center.

“The possibilities are all over the map,” he said.

Empire State Development continues to explore redevelopment possibilities for the site, but has no new information to share at this time, said spokeswoman Kristin Devoe.

“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,” she wrote in an email message.

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