October 2011

Suspended Sentence

What's the final verdict for Camp Gabriels?

Tattered daisies nod toward the pitcher’s mound. Above the chain-link backstop, stadium lights soar nearly as tall as the white pines looming just past long stucco buildings. On the edge of the outfield, skeletal remains of pay phones rust, with a lone hornet’s nest echoing the buzz of voices on a late-summer night.

Welcome to Camp Gabriels, the former state prison, former college campus, former tuberculosis sanitarium and current surplus property with more than 40 structures on 92 acres. Conjuring the ghosts of all those inside the gates since 1897 comes naturally—black-robed Sisters of Mercy placing flowers at the stone shrine or gathering eggs from the henhouse to feed the patients in three-story hospital wings. Peer into the woods and Paul Smith’s College forestry students wearing hard hats and steel-toed boots lope into view, notebooks and Biltmore sticks in hand. Open the gym doors and the screech of basketball shoes on hardwood floors recalls heated hoop games between ex-gang members. At the end of the court a mural painted by inmates shows a Manhattan skyline, the dark tablets of the World Trade Center dominating the scene.

If it’s easy to evoke the past at this en­clave north of Saranac Lake, it’s harder to script a future for the complex, which boasts infrastructure any village would envy: water supply and sewer systems designed for nearly 1,000 residents; electrical power and generators created for a sawmill, carpenter shop and kitchen capable of feeding 500 people three meals a day; offices, dorm rooms, meeting spaces and workshops. There are asphalt drives and dirt roads connecting 30-year-old metal-clad sheds to 90-year-old sanitarium buildings, parking lots and porches, ancient perennial beds and shrubs indicating the ebb and flow of work done and lives lived here.

Camp Gabriels Correctional Facility—intended to give in­mates skills for a successful return to society after serving time in other prisons—opened in 1982 and closed in 2009. Hundreds of guards, instructors, counselors and others lost their jobs, a huge blow to the local economy. The site was mothballed, awaiting a buyer. But two public auctions—one last November with a minimum price of almost a million dollars and another in April this year, with $750,000 as the starting point, failed to get a single bid.

“There were several open houses before both auctions and on more than one occasion the property was shown by special re­quest,” says Heather Groll, of the Office of General Services, the state agency charged with disposing of excess real property. There were tire-kickers, of course, but about 10 investors showed real interest, among them a Native American group and a high-roller with dreams of the site as a summer camp. The town of Brighton was offered the whole campus for a dollar and declined.

That doesn’t signal a rift between local government and New York State: since February 2010 the Brighton revitalization committee, chaired by town clerk Susan Mayer, has been mulling prospects for the tract. She acknowledges that any project takes time to earn financial backing and that the site’s po­tential market is more than upstate New York. “The facility is just too large for most needs,” she says.

However, she notes, “There’s a real need for affordable housing in the Adi­rondacks.” Among the woods and fields the committee has considered a mix of individual homes and townhouses. May­er also envisions “a satellite campus for a university with an environmental focus.” Other thoughts include a full-service senior development, ranging from in­de­pen­dent-living cottages to a skilled-nursing home. That scenario reflects another in­carnation of the place. In the 1950s, when antibiotics became the standard treatment for TB, the Sisters of Mercy cared for the elderly at their hospital in the woods.

It’s not up to Brighton to market the site, and Mayer says doing that is going to take real creativity. “We’re still hopeful that the right person will be found.”

When the Diocese of Ogdensburg sent two nuns to a forlorn outpost, the selection of Gabriels was not by chance. Ho­telier Paul Smith and railroad tycoon Wil­liam Seward Webb paid for the land. The intersection of property, purpose and personalities has happened here before.

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