According to developer Steve Turk, “Napa meets New Paltz” is what visitors to The Wildberry Lodge & Spa will find at the completion of the multifaceted recreation and tourism destination planned for a 57-acre parcel of land along Route 299 and South Ohioville Road. If all goes as expected, groundbreaking for the $42 million project will happen next summer, with construction to be completed in two phases, each lasting two-and-a-half years.
Turk spoke at the New Paltz Community Center on Tuesday, May 22, at the first of several community presentations about the project given by the Turk Hospitality Group. He talked about his passion for the project, emphasizing his family’s lifelong ties to the community and their many volunteer and philanthropic efforts. Both he and his wife, Shelley — an equal partner in Wildberry Lodge — are New Paltz natives, Turk said, SUNY New Paltz business school alumni who raised their daughters here and who already provide 350 jobs for local residents at the family business founded by his parents in 1958, Rocking Horse Ranch Resort in Highland. The couple also own and operate SplashDown Beach water park in Fishkill, which they acquired in 2004.
“We love this community, and we’re not going anywhere,” Turk told the full house of attendees at the presentation. “Shelley and I are responsible, ethical business owners in this community. And we both understand what the right thing to do means for our community.”
The construction of such a “monster” project as Wildberry Lodge is not a get-rich-quick scheme, Turk noted, but rather “a long-range plan requiring stabilization and major recapitalization.” Wildberry Lodge, LLC is seeking a 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) arrangement along with a mortgage filing fee exemption and sales tax exemption on construction materials.
The Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) has given initial approval to the Turks to develop the 57-acre property they purchased for $2 million in 2015. The IDA board will hold a public hearing on the PILOT request on Monday, June 4 at 7 p.m. at New Paltz High School, 130 South Putt Corners Road.
Turk’s presentation at the community center focused on the benefits the proposed project would bring to New Paltz and the greater Hudson Valley region. In addition to being a tourism magnet that will bring visitors into the village to shop and dine, it will serve as “an artistic, educational and environmental landmark,” he said. “I think it will be an asset for the area’s economy, bringing at least 130 to 140 jobs.” The project is expected to create 150-185 jobs during construction, using local labor “as much as possible.”
Turk said he has received some negative feedback from the community with regard to the PILOT request, but claimed the information about it circulating on the Internet isn’t accurate.
According to the application papers filed with the IDA by Wildberry Lodge, LLC — available to view at http://ulstercountyny.gov/economic-development/ulster-county-industrial-development-agency under “projects,” — the tax relief Wildberry Lodge would receive from the PILOT and the other exemptions requested amounts to nearly $11.2 million. But the numbers on the application were not thoroughly vetted before the papers were submitted, Turk said, put there “strictly as place marks,” conservative approximations that he now wishes he “could take back.”
According to their calculations now, the actual amount of tax relief the project will receive if approved for a 15-year PILOT is $6.4 million, and the project will contribute more than $6.7 million in property tax payments during the life of the PILOT.
For the first 2.5 years of construction, Turk explained, they will continue to pay the approximately $21,000 in property taxes they’ve paid annually on the undeveloped land at its current assessment. (For decades prior, he noted, the previous land owner contributed the same into town coffers.) Once the property is reassessed at the 2.5-year mark, when construction of phase one — a 90-room hotel and conference center — is complete and the doors open, the PILOT kicks in.
At year five, when construction of phase two is completed, the property taxes will rise at least ten-fold, Turk said, to nearly $300,000 by year five and rising annually after that until the project has contributed $6.7 million in taxes by the end of the PILOT. After year 15, when the PILOT ends, the project is expected to contribute $390,000 annually in taxes.
Questions from the community members present at the meeting focused primarily on concerns of increased traffic, use of town services, sewer infrastructure and the effect the project would have on the school district budget.
According to Scott Butler, engineer and project manager for Wildberry Lodge, the project will not have an impact on the school district’s budget, because it will not add any additional students to the New Paltz district. And the eventual rise of taxes on the property will only benefit the school district in years to come, he added.
With regard to town services, Wildberry Lodge will either contribute to the local rescue squad or use the same on-call, as-needed, paid emergency service that Rocking Horse Ranch currently does. The only other demand for services would be police and fire, Butler said, “or something that happens in the community as the result of guests or visitors.” Overall, he noted, the impact of the project on local services will be “very, very low.”
The Turks also plan to pay for highway improvements around the property, including a traffic circle to help diffuse traffic flow coming off the Thruway and adding turning lanes to the intersection of Route 299 and South Ohioville Road. Turk said a study was done that showed traffic after the project’s completion would “meet all traffic thresholds at full capacity.”
As for sewer usage, Wildberry Lodge, LLC will pay for their water and sewer services and plan to invest in sewer infrastructure improvements in the village, paying for replacement of the failing sewers in district six.
Town of New Paltz Supervisor Neil Bettez, in attendance at the meeting, voiced his approval for the project. “There are some real benefits,” he said, noting that sewer infrastructure in district six has been in dire need of replacement for some time but grants to pay for it are not available unless the system actually fails. The area only services 28 homes, Bettez said, “but imagine if you and 27 of your neighbors suddenly had to come up with millions of dollars to build a new sewer.”
The supervisor also commended Turk for recently sending some of his employees as advisors to help get the Moriello Pool open on time this summer. “They just have a wealth of knowledge, and it was generous. It shows that Steve [Turk] is a part of this community; not this developer coming in from somewhere else where they just want to build some junk and leave. When I go back and look at the different plans that have been proposed for this site, from Walmart and Crossroads, and then look at this plan… We’re never going to get better than this. We can argue about the PILOT, and the amount, but when you build something big and bold like this, you need a PILOT to help you get on your feet. And a big, transformative project like this… maybe they need a little help for the first couple of years.”
In the long run, said Bettez, the project will attract tourism and create economic benefits. “I know it’s never popular to be in favor of something in New Paltz,” he said, at which he was interrupted by laughter and applause from the audience. “But you can’t say ‘no’ to everything all the time. We have to say ‘yes’ to the right projects. I think we should give Steve and his family a shot.”
Another community member expressed skepticism about the supervisor’s optimism, saying that the overall benefits to the community still had to be fully explained to him and others. “PILOTs aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s got to be the right deal for our community. I remain open-minded, but it is what it is, and it depends on what the deal is.”
The new, scaled-down plan
The vision for Wildberry Lodge has morphed several times over the past few years since the original plan that included a $75 million water park. The current $42 million project reflects what local residents and municipal leaders told him they want in the community, said Turk. A Seattle-based firm was brought in to consult on the resort’s design.
It may be a scaled-down version of the original plan, and the water park has been eliminated, but there’s still plenty going on. The amenities at the 57-acre site — with 33 of those acres to be left “forever wild” — will include the Wildberry Botanical Spa & Wellness Center: a full-service spa with 12-16 therapy rooms, an open space studio for yoga and meditation, a fitness center, mineral springs and an indoor-to-outdoor swimming pool.
Guests at the 90-room hotel designed by local architect Rick Alfandre will have access to “Adventure Concierge Guides,” who will shuttle visitors into the village for shopping and dining and to the Hudson Valley’s historic and cultural sites.
The smaller of two planned event and conference facilities will be built into the core of the hotel, accommodating up to 150 people. A second multi-purpose space holding approximately 500 guests will be in a stand-alone, 11,000-square-foot “modern barn” structure with “breakout” rooms that can host simultaneous meetings.
A boutique-style restaurant will be attached to the hotel lobby and include a chef’s demonstration kitchen. Based on future demand, another stand-alone restaurant may eventually be built.
The property will also feature a grassy, tiered open-air outdoor amphitheater seating up to 500, to be used seasonally for “unplugged” or low-volume live music and theatrical presentations. A greenhouse will be adjacent to a 15,000-square-foot butterfly conservatory showcasing hundreds of butterfly species. The space is intended to be for educational purposes such as school field trips and will also be open to daily walk-in visitors for enjoyment.
A “treehouse and canopy adventure” is planned on the grounds, as well, along with zip lines, rope courses and adventure climbing. The site rendering also depicts artist studios and a sculpture garden in the mix, and a wetlands observation deck to overlook the 11 acres of bird sanctuary and wetlands on the 33 acres of the property to be left undeveloped. A planted screen and berm will block out the New York State Thruway that runs along the far side of the property, and approximately 500 parking spaces will be provided.
Other than the hotel rooms, all of the various activities and facilities will be open to the public. Pricing will not be all-inclusive, as it is at Rocking Horse Ranch. Use of the resort by locals will be encouraged; Turk says he plans to offer “special arrangements” for individuals and families who live in the area.