FORT EDWARD — With a fully formed board and tax assessment challenges in the rear view mirror, the Fort Edward Local Property Development Corp. held a meeting Tuesday night; and board members answered the public’s questions about what they intend to do with the former General Electric Co. dewatering site.
The group has been a mystery since it was given the approximately 80 acres from WCC in December 2018, except that Town Board Member Neal Orsini was leading the corporation.
WCC is a D.A. Collins real estate holding company, which had leased the land to GE. It defaulted on millions of dollars in taxes and sued for a reduced assessment, an effort that succeeded. In the meantime, Washington County taxpayers had been making the town, village and school whole for the delinquent taxes; after the settlement, the county ordered the local taxing districts to pay back funds.
The tax burden traveled with the dewatering site to its new owners. But the public learned Tuesday that taxes will be paid on the property through a management agreement with a for-profit company formed in November 2018. That company is called Fort Edward Development, and local leaders said it is made up of the same people as WCC.
The public also learned on Tuesday who is on the board of LPDC, the nonprofit local development corp.
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Besides Orsini, Zachary Middleton, a town Planning Board member and son of town Supervisor Terry Middleton, kicked off the meeting as the only two members. Their first order of business, following the approval of two prior meeting minutes, was to nominate three others to their board.
Darran “Bush” Thompson, owner of a small thoroughbred farm in Fort Edward; and village resident John Guglielmo, a sales account executive, were voted onto the board. Also voted on but not present was Bill Pels, formerly of the engineering firm Barton and Loguidice.
Town Attorney Don Boyajian was acting secretary for the meeting.
Present in the audience were Middleton, village Mayor Matthew Traver, Village Board member David Cutler, Fort Edward school board members James Donahue and Thomas Roche and village resident Frank Burkhardt.
As a fully formed board, the nonprofit corporation members entered into a management agreement with Fort Edward Development.
“It’s an LLC that’s comprised of members that were former owners of the property,” Boyajian said, referring to WCC. “They have tremendous experience with the property and how to market it, and the types of clients that will bring economic development to the property, to the town, to the village, to the school.”
Orsini, Boyajian and Zachary Middleton explained that Fort Edward Development will maintain and manage the property, which includes paying the taxes and insurance. The insurance had already been paid. They said the for-profit company had been waiting to pay the taxes until the agreement was signed.
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The management agreement between Fort Edward Development and LPDC states they will split property revenues equally, but tax payments and insurance must be paid first. Once those expenses are taken care of, Orsini said, the plan is to divert revenue back to the town, village and school, or to use it for more development on-site.
The agreement is for 20 years, but either party may terminate it with advanced written notice.
The agreement also gives the nonprofit board oversight of the property. Members argued this plan was the best way forward for the community. Zachary Middleton said if the property had gone into foreclosure, its future would have been uncertain.
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“They’re (Washington County) very bad at selling property, if you look in the past history of property they’ve sold,” he said. “Our goal is to take the property, develop the property, increase the tax revenue stream from now, grow it. I’m hoping at the same time we can get job growth. We can rebuild the infrastructure of the area. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at. ... We’re trying to better the community.”
Roche, who had been on the LPDC board but resigned in January, said he thought this was a good move, based on all the other potential options. It keeps the property in the hands of locals, rather than for “it to be auctioned off at a much less price, to maybe possibly the same owners.”
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Orsini said he thought it was a fair deal for the former owners, too.
“Personally, as a businessman, I thought the property was over-assessed,” Orsini said.
Zachary Middleton said WCC had trouble marketing the property in the past because of the tax assessment review.
“If they had anybody look at the property, there was so much baggage hanging over the head at that time, nobody would really jump at it,” he said.
“Basically, everyone I talk to in government and some prospective manufacturing people I’ve toured the site with, said settle the back taxes, settle everything, give me a call then, so we’re at that stage now,” Terry Middleton said.
The local leaders are feeling confident that now the tax assessment issue is settled and an agreement is signed, they can start attracting business to the property.
Road to somewhere
Traver inquired about the road and bridge to the site.
The main access point off Route 196 in Kingsbury has been an issue, because the bridge and road were put in as temporary structures, and no one has wanted to invest the money to make them permanent.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Canal Corp. also are involved with the bridge and have permits and requirements for its permanency. Orsini said it’s still up in the air.
“We’re in the process of resolving the bridge issue and the manager, Fort Edward Development LLC, is on board with helping to make sure that happens,” Boyajian added.
Orsini said his nonprofit is also looking at getting sewer and gas to the site.
It has been a long road for the group, and they blamed delays partly on The Post-Star‘s coverage.
“This is what kind of killed me and Neal,” Zachary Middleton said. “We get negative press, so me and Neal were put in the same corner, trying to build a board, and all we get is negative press all the time. Nobody would get on the board, because they don’t want to get their name in the paper on the negative press side.”
Donahue said he had been asked to be on the board, and confessed he declined because of what he had read.
When a reporter asked Orsini why he hadn’t returned phone calls for previous stories about the group, he said at the time he couldn’t answer questions. He added that they couldn’t hold a public meeting with only two members.
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But the “negative press” did have some perks, Orsini said. He was contacted by Peckham Industries, a company that produces asphalt, about interest in the site. It’s also on a short list for another interested business, he said.
“So you’re like the Kardashians,” Traver joked. “Bad press is good press.”
Zachary Middleton said the site is unique in that it has a state-of-the-art rail system next to water. Guglielmo added a lot of infrastructure on the site is ready to go, and businesses don’t have to start from scratch.
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In the short-term, Orsini was meeting Wednesday with the site’s one tenant, SMS Rail, about potentially expanding its operations. The board will also be creating a business plan.
Going forward, the group does not plan on any regularly scheduled meetings, but it will advertise them in the legals section of The Post-Star.
“Finally, we’re in a good place,” Orsini said.