Some fans of Knox Farm State Park grew alarmed last month after learning the state sought proposals from companies for a microbrewery, winery or distillery at the former Knox family summer estate.
New York State wants a private partner to invest up to $1 million to improve, repurpose and manage the decaying historic horse barns, stables and other buildings on 80 of the park’s 633 acres in East Aurora.
It encouraged potential bidders to align their proposals with the state’s Taste NY program, which promotes foods and beverages made in the state.
In return for a 10- to 40-year contract, depending on the size of the private investment, the state wants an additional $25,000 a year from the new manager, plus a minimum of 5 percent of any gross revenue generated.
Mark Carrow of Kenmore, who often drives to the park to take walks, said he worries about what will become of the former estate the state bought 16 years ago for $5.2 million. Something so intensively commercial could undermine the alluring serenity of the park where people now walk dogs, bike and take yoga.
“I’d like to see it stay the way it is. I don’t want to see it changed,” Carrow said. “I do think that instead of a brewery it could be used for an educational purpose.”
Carrow would prefer “something more in line with the property itself, something that wasn’t so commercial.”
‘Farm to table’
On July 21, the deadline for bids, the state parks office said it received only one proposal – from Julie Ciolek of Aurora.
Her husband, Lenny Ciolek, the founder of McKenzie’s Hard Cider, said his wife’s Knox Farm proposal is completely separate from McKenzie’s.
Ciolek called McKenzie’s the largest regional cider producer in America.
“Everyone thinks we are going in there to build a big brewery,” said Ciolek, who talked about the proposal on behalf of his wife. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
He said the small volume of beer and soft cider they hope to produce at the state park would be made from hops and apples grown at the park, and would only be sold on site in keeping with their “farm to table” proposal.
He said his wife pledged to invest $539,000 in capital projects at the park over three years in return for a 10-year renewable lease.
Although they hope to make a profit, Ciolek said they don’t want to turn a beautiful former farm into anything resembling a commercial-looking place.
“The park is in disrepair. We’re looking to bring that park back to what it used to be,” Ciolek said. “We want to bring back an equestrian and agricultural environment to the park.”
Last year, Ciolek and his wife organized a brew fest at Knox Farm and sold cider, along with pumpkins and donuts, at the fall market there.
Ciolek’s fall market was successful, according to the parks office: The business invested $11,000 in improvements for a barn next to the stables, replacing a door and installing flooring, and also donated $10,000 worth of sweet cider to the Buffalo City Mission after the market ended.
On June 15, the state paid for newspaper legal ads seeking bids. But state officials did not reach out to associations representing brewers, distillers or winemakers in the region, or to businesses participating in the Taste NY program.
Local makers of spirits said they didn’t hear about the state’s solicitation until it was too late.
The state might have received more bids if it had let beverage manufacturers know about the opportunity, said Cory Muscato, vice president of the New York State Distillers Guild. He would have shared information about the state’s RFP with his organization’s 56 members.
“None of my colleagues, including craft beverage associations, have heard of this opportunity,” he said.
Muscato said the $25,000 annual fee the state wants is a relative bargain.
Mark Thomas, western district director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, said the state didn’t reach out to beverage associations “because we are casting a wide net and not limiting the RFP to a particular industry.”
Ciolek said the state has not tried to steer this contract toward him or his wife, although he said he had been talking with state officials about his interest in the contract for months before the state issued the RFP. Also, his wife has already applied for a $400,000 grant from Empire State Development Corp. to support the proposal.
“Anybody could have approached the state,” Ciolek said.
A state official said the state might not award the Knox Farm management contract to Ciolek.
“Please bear in mind that just because we received a proposal, that does not mean we will move forward,” said Angela Berti, state parks spokeswoman. “It is not unheard of that proposals sometimes do not get executed as planned for whatever reason but will, in turn, create a different opportunity, event or even a new RFP.”
Assemblyman David DiPietro, former East Aurora mayor and past vice president of the volunteer group Friends of Knox Farm, said the state should have given bidders more than five weeks to submit a proposal.
DiPietro said five weeks is not enough time to put together such a complex proposal, which involves taking over management of 80 acres, along with assorted structures. He said many of those structures are in need of repair, including four barns, three houses and the stables.
The park’s intent
DiPietro also said that inviting a business to make and sell alcoholic beverages at Knox Farm seems at odds with the original low-key, family-oriented intent of the park.
The state’s request has concerned leaders of the nonprofit Stables at Knox Inc., a volunteer group that Seymour Knox IV and his mother, Jean, helped form to raise money to restore the stables at the park.
In recent years, Stables at Knox revived polo at the park fields where Woolworth department store heir Seymour Knox Jr. once played with his championship team.
After the first two summer polo matches in 2014 and 2015, the group raised $40,000 for the park and charities. Organizers expected to raise at least $30,000 more at a polo event last weekend.
“We thought that you should know that if you accept the RFP from a candidate with a business such as the aforementioned, it will likely compromise our mission with regard to donations for the stables,” John Mead Hatcher, Stables at Knox president, wrote to the state.
But from the state’s perspective, Knox Farm State Park is in urgent need of a private partner that can fix the buildings.
New York gave Olympic horse rider Darren Chiacchia a contract to do that in 2005, but the arrangement didn’t last more than a few years.
In 2011 and again in 2013, the state issued solicitations for proposals to manage and improve the park.
No bids came in after either one.