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PROPOSALS SOUGHT FOR DEVEAUX
STATE SEEKS A NEW LIFE FOR BUILDINGS THAT ORIGINALLY HOUSED A SCHOOL FOR POOR BOYS AND ORPHANS

The grand old stone building called Schoellkopf Hall was built in 1926, part of an Episcopal school for poor boys and orphans called DeVeaux College. In 1973, Niagara County converted it into a school for troubled youths.

That is its past.

Its current owner, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has a somewhat more luxurious role in mind for its future: a boutique hotel, perhaps. Or a spa.

State officials have invited developers to submit ideas for using the school's remaining buildings, including Schoellkopf Hall, a three-story building with 48 rooms, some sporting carved stone fireplaces.

That wasn't the plan when state parks bought the property from Niagara University in 2000 and christened it DeVeaux Woods State Park.

In October of that year, state Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro announced that the DeVeaux campus buildings, some unused for 20 years, would be rehabilitated. Her office's Niagara Region headquarters, currently filling a historic Prospect Point building next to the Niagara Falls State Park visitors center, would move to DeVeaux.

Then the Prospect Point building could be used for a museum, Castro said, adding to the offerings for the millions of tourists visiting the park annually from around the world.

None of that happened.

The initial idea was to use another DeVeaux building, the former Castellani Museum, as office space, said Deputy State Parks Commissioner Edward Rutkowski. The Castellani, constructed in 1965, is a relatively new building. But eventually it turned out that state parks would have to scrap its original plans.

"There just isn't the money at this point," Rutkowski said last week. "It would just take away money from projects for park patrons."

So, in keeping with the Pataki administration's parks policy, use of the buildings was offered to private business. As on Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park, private corporations can lease the premises in exchange for making capital improvements that the parks department can't afford.

State parks has also issued a request for proposals for three buildings in Fort Niagara State Park, including the former commandant's house. That building was being renovated into an upscale bed-and-breakfast when its developer, W. Kirk Hastings, died in 2002. It's about 40 percent complete, the state says.

Deadline for Fort Niagara proposals is Jan. 28. The deadline for DeVeaux proposals, which has been extended once, is Dec. 3.

When state officials evaluate proposals for opening private businesses in parks, not just any business proposition will do, Rutkowski said. Nothing that would compromise the character of the park would be considered.

One of the main assets of DeVeaux Woods State Park, a stand of old-growth forest between the DeVeaux buildings and the Robert Moses Parkway, isn't included in the offer. According to the official proposal, industrial uses for the buildings would be unacceptable.

Suggested possibilities, besides a spa or hotel, include a convention center, catering facility, educational or recreation-based business.

Rutkowski mentioned two other commercial businesses operating on state park property as examples: the Glen Iris Inn in Letchworth State Park, and the Bear Mountain Inn in Bear Mountain State Park, 45 miles north of New York City. Both inns are operated by concessionaires in historic architecture that's nearly a century old.

"Those are the kind of projects that are . . . compatible with what we do in state parks," said Rutkowski.

One of the stated goals of the Office of State Parks is to add to the potential for environmental tourism in Niagara Falls. The DeVeaux Woods property is about three miles north of Niagara Falls State Park, but it's less than a five-minute walk from the rim of the Niagara Gorge, which has a series of trails at its top and bottom. The Whirlpool State Park is next door.

Rutkowski said any private business proposal accepted would require the company to pay to fix up the buildings it uses. Since the property was purchased by the state, there hasn't been much done to the buildings, but a public-private partnership would be better than nothing, he said.

"You want to make sure the roofs don't leak . . . as time goes by without people in them they just deteriorate more," he said.

For a company to lease a building for 10 years or more, the firm would have to commit to investing at least $1 million in improvements to the building and grounds, said Rutkowski. The business also would have to pay a license fee to the state: either a set amount or a percentage of gross receipts.

The business also would have to deal with provisions of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, as well as any asbestos or other code issues it discovered in the buildings.

Local environmentalist Bob Baxter said the DeVeaux proposal represented an unwelcome retreat from planned improvements by state parks.

"Another promise to do the right thing for Niagara's parks has apparently been abandoned," Baxter said.

He expressed disappointment that state parks leadership would publicly embrace the philosophy of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, then repeatedly "solicit moneymaking enterprises to set up shop in state parks."

Hopefully, any renovation of historic buildings would be done in character with the historic value of DeVeaux buildings, Baxter said, and permitted uses won't threaten the character of the old growth forest nearby.

Former Councilman Paul Dyster noted that a 2003 proposal to protect the DeVeaux property by declaring it a historic landmark was tabled after state parks officials said the state was taking care of their preservation.

Having Schoellkopf Hall and other structures renovated by private industry and turned into a functioning tourism-related business would certainly be better than having them decay, Dyster said.

"We're going to have to keep an eye on this going forward, but if they can save these buildings from a bulldozer," he said, "in the long run that will be a good thing."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com