Sports arena raises questions

More than 60 people packed the senior center last week for a public hearing on a proposed $15 million sports complex at Cantine Field. While many were excited about the prospect of adding a huge indoor arena to the already first-rate recreation complex, others were wary of the proposed public/private partnership that would allow businessman John Barese to operate tax-free. [He estimates the project would provide $65,000 per year to the town through various user fees, mainly from parking.]

Why tax-free? Presumably, because the project is conceived as having a close bond with the school district. The junior and senior high schools, located right across Washington Ave., use Cantine Field constantly. Though this would be a private facility, they’d be able to use it at no charge during school hours and for special events.

School administrators from Saugerties and Kingston have expressed measured support for the project. “From the perspective of looking to increase the opportunities for children of the Saugerties community, we find this type of project could be beneficial for the Saugerties High School,” states a letter signed by high school principal Tom Averill and district superintendent Seth Turner.


“The town, county, and state will benefit from this,” Barese said of the proposed facility. “We will give every kid interested in sports in the area a chance to realize what they want to be in life.”

No longer limited by our northern climate, aspiring student athletes will be able to practice 365 days a year. The school could field a varsity swim team.

“This will be a dream come true,’ Barese said.


The issue

The town needs to decide if it will go along with Barese’s plan. He wants to build on 7.5 acres of public land at Cantine Field, the town’s sprawling recreational complex that includes several ball fields and the Kiwanis Ice Arena. The part he’s talking about isn’t used for much today — just a little bit of storage. Barese wants to donate an adjacent parcel between North St. and Cantine Field, of equal size to the town in exchange for an agreement that would allow him to lease the land for 99 years for $1 per year. The town would still own the land, so it would be tax-free. The donated parcel is rocky and unsuitable for building an arena, but the town could use it for storage, says Barese.

The public hearing was on that proposed land deal, called “alienation.” The Town Board didn’t decide that night, nor did it give any indication of when it would put the question to a vote. Instead, board members expressed misgivings about turning over public land for a private venture, and what future liabilities they could be creating.

The deal would require town approval, as well as the approval of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, state Legislature and the governor. Barese said he’d hoped the town would grant its approval and that the state would, too, by June before the summer recess, otherwise the project would be delayed by a year.


Boon for students, draw for visitors

A number of residents at the public hearing said they believed the project would be a good thing for Saugerties.

“I’m all for this,” said resident Tony Konopka. “This will help all the kids and keep them out of trouble. This will make this a better town and provide jobs.”

Resident Al Bruno said gripes over the tax issue ignore a vital point: the land in question isn’t generating any tax revenue now. The project would provide money through direct payments and as an attraction.

“I see nothing bad in this,” said Bruno.

“I think this is an excellent project,” said resident Michael Vallarella. “What is the good that the property is doing for the community now? And if [the facility] fails, we could find another use for this.”

Barese touted some figures for the positive economic effects of tourism.

“Every dollar we generate, will generate $7 outside in the town. This is a win-win situation for everybody.”


Why public land?

Nobody at the hearing was against the idea of a sports arena. But there were aspects of the plan they found troubling.

Some residents look at this and see a business-owner who doesn’t want to pay his fair share. Or worse — someone who wants to take something that was part of the public trust and use it to make a buck.

“The people would feel better if this was done on private land,” said resident Lisa Cornell.

Supervisor Kelly Myers called the plan a “very exciting vision,” but said it was important for the town to consider what would happen if the plan failed — Saugerties could be left holding the bag.

She asked Barese if he has considered building on private land. He said he had, and had talked to the owners of Winston Farm about five years ago. But that didn’t work out. He said he saw the facility as connected to the school’s athletic program. If it were sited at Winston Farm, instead of across the street, it wouldn’t be the same.

“A very positive spin has been put on this, but we need to look at the big picture,” said Councilman Bruce Leighton.


Project details

Plans for the $15 million, 200,000 square foot arena include an indoor turf field, track lanes, an Olympic-size swimming pool and four basketball courts, which could also be used for volleyball and other sports. Most of the clientele would be students, who would be able to use the facility for free during school hours and for special events. According to Barese’s proposal, the facility would be privately owned and operated, and the town would lease seven acres of land for $1 a year for 99 years. He’s proposing a PILOT agreement in which he’d donate five acres of adjacent land to the town in exchange for operating tax-free throughout the lease. He’d also improve the access road at a $1 million estimated cost, and turn over the proceeds from parking at special events to the town [$3-10 per vehicle].

In addition to being used for sporting events, clinics, and private practices, all for a fee, Barese said he hopes to hold large concerts there as well.

“Maybe Willie Nelson,” he said.

He also said the building could host festivals and a flea market, and be used as a shelter during extreme weather.

Another question not answered was who will be paying for the facility. Barese has said that he will not be bankrolling the facility, but that a private investor would be. He did not name the investor at the meeting.