Association official in turn expresses frustration at controversy
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea last week cited his dissatisfaction with information provided him about a planned Constitution Island Association visitor-education center in Cold Spring and called for Town Board discussion of the matter – which could result in revocation of the letter of support he had given the project in August.
The leader of the Constitution Island Association in turn has expressed dismay and bewilderment over the uproar generated by the association’s announcement of its intent to acquire space for exhibitions and displays, an office, and other needs and become an asset to Main Street.
At the Town Board’s formal monthly meeting, Thursday (Sept. 12), Shea scuttled a pro-forma vote on ratifying his earlier written endorsement of the association’s planned center. Dated Aug. 13, his letter had been read into the record Aug. 19 at a New York state public hearing on the project. Using$749,766 in a long-expected grant from the Empire State Development Corp., the Constitution Island Association wants to buy a building on Main Street in Cold Spring to house the center.
The association, a non-profit organization, owns the contents of the Warner family home, a historic but deteriorating house on Constitution Island. But the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has the house itself, along with the rest of the island, which a Warner heiress donated to the federal government more than 100 years ago for West Point use. Located on the Hudson River, the island is connected to Cold Spring by a narrow causeway that holds the Metro-North train tracks and a narrow lane, but generally is inaccessible to the public.
Much of the testimony at the Empire State hearing opposed establishment of an association center on Main Street, with several speakers urging that the facility be placed on the island itself. Over the last year, the association leadership and the West Point garrison command, whose jurisdiction includes the island, have clashed and, refusing to renew the association’s accreditation as “an approved organization,” West Point barred it from the island.
Shea alluded to the controversy last week.
“My apologies to the board,” he told his Town Board colleagues. “I jumped the gun on this [letter]. And I was, it turns out, sort of not misinformed but not thoroughly informed as to the nature of this. So it sounded like something fairly innocent.”
His letter stated: “A visit to Constitution Island is a unique Hudson Valley experience for our local residents and visitors to our region. An education center in the Village of Cold Spring would be a huge benefit to tourism and to our local residents as well. The Town Board of Philipstown is in strong support of the grant for Constitution Island Association’s education center to be located in the village.”
Shea urged the Town Board to postpone any action on his letter; his colleagues concurred. “I’d rather have some discussion about this, because it seems it’s more involved than I first realized,” he explained. He said he wanted to “get the board’s input and see if we do actually want to support this, because other things have come to light since I did draft the letter.” He did not rule out rescinding the endorsement. “We’ll have a discussion. Whether we are going to rescind it or not will come out of our discussion,” Shea said.
In a phone call and emails Tuesday and Wednesday, Betsy Pugh, who chairs the association, expressed frustration at the turn of events. “The simple fact is the Constitution Island Association wants a home base, in an area where there are tourists, to serve that industry, and present, for their interest, the history of the Warner family and the island’s history as it involves the local community,” she said.
According to Pugh, the association and West Point labored for three years to put a visitor-education center on the island, but given the constraints of the island and terms of the grant, could not find a way to do so. “Finally, West Point advised the association to try placing the center off the island,” she said. So the group looked toward Cold Spring. “What damage will the association do to Main Street” if it creates its center there? Pugh asked. “I cannot think of anything.” (During the August hearing, Mayor Ralph Falloon objected that using the building for a non-profit would remove it from the tax rolls.)
At the center, “we will attract tourists, sell items, encourage people to visit the historic locations, and yes, if possible, conduct tours to the island” – something to be pursued with West Point, Pugh told Philipstown.info. “I can assure you the association will be a very good addition to Main Street and proud to be so.”
The organization intends to go forward with the purchase of the Main Street building, public debate notwithstanding, she added. “It’s hard to understand why this is happening,” she said. “The attack on this really tiny, 100-year-old organization is outrageous. It’s outrageous. The criticisms are unfair.”