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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2012
Master plan in the works
A cliffhanger: What does Thacher Park’s future hold?
NEW SCOTLAND The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is beginning a yearlong review and public feedback process charting the future development and operation of the John Boyd Thacher and Thompson’s Lake state parks.
In working to create the parks’ first master plan, the office has assembled an internal planning team consisting of administrators, park staff, and professional planners, explained member and regional Director Alane Ball-Chinian, from her office in Saratoga. “This is a really exciting opportunity, the next life of Thacher Park,” she said.
The park has never had a master plan since Emma Treadwell Thacher donated 350 acres to the state in 1914, in honor of her late husband John Boyd Thacher, said Ball-Chinian.
The process of creating a master plan is positive and “signals the agency is willing to invest significant resources in the park,” said Ball-Chinian. “Just creating the plan alone draws a lot of the agency’s internal attention.”
Ball-Chinian acknowledged former Governor David Paterson’s plan to close the park, along with 40 others across the state, in Feburary 2010, may still be fresh on the minds of park patrons. The closure decision was overturned by June 2010, after massive public outcry moved state legislators to oppose the governor’s plans and continue funding the park. At the time, Thacher reported receiving an estimated 220,000 annual visitors, less than half the attendance in its 1950s’ heyday when a swimming pool was built. The state planned to save $225,000 in yearly operating costs by closing the site.
Since then, many residents and public officials have wondered, with some understandable concern, what the future for Thacher may hold.
Ball-Chinian hopes the Office of Parks’ decision to create a master plan for the park will relieve any remaining apprehension. “It really is a new day. I sense nothing but good,” said Ball-Chinian. She said creating a plan would take about a year to complete and the office is keen on engaging the community and local park staff during the process.
Ball-Chinian noted the planning team included local Thacher Park Manager Christopher Fallon and Nancy Engel, the director of the nature center near Thompson’s Lake. The Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center is used as a visitor hub for both parks but is located about a mile from Thacher, within walking distance of Thompson’s Lake. Though separated by a mile of forested residential development, Ball-Chinian said, the two sites share a lot in common, including staff, history, and now their futures since both parks’ paths forward would be unified under a single master plan.
The plan will eventually document the state’s goals in operating the parks and will involve a broad review of current practices, services, and facilities. “We’re trying to accomplish a number of things. We’re looking at trends of recreation, demographics, other competitive forces and their recreational facilities it can take some time. It will drive operational programs, capital programs, and maintenance programming at the park. And, another benefit is the chance to strengthen relationships in the community,” said Ball-Chinian.
Fallon, Thacher’s manager, put it another way: “Part of what we want is to get a sense of what the community feels. It’s a fairly open, fairly broad, process. Asks the question: What would you like to see at Thacher?”
Plans for planning
Ball-Chinian said the agency is preparing to launch a press and public information campaign in late April, advertising the process of creating a master plan and encouraging community involvement. The information release will also be accompanied by an open house scheduled for April 28 at the nature center. During that day, the center will staff a public information table about the process and will accept the public’s recommendations and feedback.
“There will be an opportunity to give input, a very informal thing,” said Ball-Chinian. She went on to explain the office was working to schedule more formal public hearings in the month of May.
“In May sometime, we’re going to have two public events, informational meetings,” she said. “More formal, and probably located at a municipal meeting area. Basically we’ll have two public meetings in May where we’ll present facts about the park and give an overview of where it is now,” she said.
Ball-Chinian said a part of these hearings would involve listening to suggestions from organizations and individuals. However, Ball-Chinian said, she wants to establish an ongoing dialogue with groups closely involved with the park, naming the volunteer group, The Friends of Thacher, as an example. She also referred to other active social and educational organizations involved with geology, hiking, birdwatching, and astronomy.
Following the May public meetings, Ball-Chinian said, the planning team would create a draft master plan drawing on information from environmental studies, feedback, and financial constraints. The draft would then be shared with the public and researchers before a finalized version would be considered later in the year, she explained.
Fallon said now is a good time for a review in light of the changes the park has endured over the years. Apart from near-closure, one of those changes involved the demolition of the site’s Olympic-sized swimming pool in 1996, which was a major draw for visitors and an important part of the park’s identity in previous decades. At the time, state officials promised a comparable replacement, possibly a water park at Thacher, but no development materialized as funding and interest allegedly dried up.
“I’m not aware we ever had a master plan before; part of the reason to do one now is because we’ve never had one. Also, there have been some changes,” said Fallon, citing the pool closure and aging facilities, like restrooms. He added, “Attendance has changed over the years. We’re trying to see what makes the most sense moving forward.”
Last week, The Altamont Enterprise visited areas of Thacher cut off to all but pedestrian traffic. A number of parking areas at Thacher once filled with vehicles have been closed over the years due to decreased attendance. Many still appear to have well maintained concrete or blacktop surfaces but have been closed by officials except for use by patrons paying to rent specific pavilions.
A number of these sites also contain locked, but functioning, bathroom buildings; three contain boarded-up buildings intentionally located in central areas once serving as concession stands. Most buildings appear to be a half-century old; backstops are unused; and some picnic areas have moss-covered tables or piles of broken tables.
It was not difficult to discover an area with closed parking lots, shuttered bathrooms, leaf-cluttered grills, and crammed-together picnic tables, often tucked several hundred yards from the nearest parking area.
The sites are slowly being reclaimed by nature.
During the closure debate two years ago, some claimed the lack of public use is the result of changing interests at the park while others claimed the lower attendance is the result of changes by the park.
Fallon said attendance at the park had increased slightly in 2011 from 2010, estimating over a quarter-of-a-million people visited Thacher last year.
Nothing is off the board
Officials declined to talk about possible developments at the park, and instead reiterated the process was in the information-collection phase.
“Nothing is off the board; we’re open to all suggestions” said Ball-Chinian, when asked if the state might consider restoring some retired facilities to the park, principally a public pool. “We’re at that very creative stage,” she said.
Ball-Chinian did confirm however that officials were intent on making Thacher comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“When we were threatened with closure, there was a lot of outcry and support. We’d love it if those people involved would come out for these public meetings and comment,” added Fallon. “It’s a state park so it’s open to everyone but the most significant use is from local communities. We really want to see what they want.”
By Tyler Murphy
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