The future of Innovation Grand Street has remained a mystery ever since SUNY Orange left the project in the spring of 2019.
Orange County had originally purchased three buildings on Grand Street: American Legion Building, the Masonic Lodge, and the YMCA building back in 2013. These buildings were bought with the understanding that they would be used by the college. A few years later, SUNY Orange created Innovation Grand Street, a plan to help boost job training and workforce development that used all three buildings.
“We wanted to figure out what part of the community college mission could be best served in those buildings, particularly in Newburgh,” said Dr. Kristine Young, the President of SUNY Orange in a phone interview.
Innovation Grand Street, became “fully fleshed out” at the end of 2018, said Young.
“We designed the project around three buildings. We had a plan to submit the Empire State Development [for a grant] two years in a row. The American Legion and the Masonic Lodge were in better shape structurally, and then we were going to follow this year with a second application for the YMCA. The application [for the Empire State Grant] only described two buildings, but all along, whenever we’ve been talking with anyone: our plans, our powerpoints, our handouts had always talked about all three buildings.”
According to the presentation on Innovation Grand Street to the Education and Economic Development and Rules Committees of the Orange County Legislature, all three buildings were mentioned. The presentation, which took place on January 23, 2019, included the proposed two phases of the project. Phase one involved the American Legion Building and the Masonic Lodge. Phase two entirely focused on the YMCA building.
This presentation additionally references a bond resolution from Dec. 19, 2013, that the Orange County Legislature created after the purchase of the three buildings, which “authoriz[ed] acquisition of land, buildings and related improvements thereon in the City of Newburgh for the expansion of Orange County Community College facilities.” According to the bond resolution, the County was “authorized to establish a new capital project for Orange County Community College, consisting of three parcels in the City of Newburgh…”
At the time of the presentation, SUNY Orange managed to raise $6,431,000 out of the $9,158,566 needed in the proposed budget, which came to 72.2% of funding. “The college successfully applied for and got a significant state grant,” said Dr. Young. Called the Empire State Fund, the college received this grant for $1.83 million dollars. Central Hudson pledged $200,000 to the project, while former Senator Bill Larkin acquired a SAM Grant for the same amount of money.
The college was only $2,727,566 away from acquiring the needed funds for phase one of Innovation Grand Street.
SUNY Orange spent time trying to get the County to agree that all three buildings should be held in trust by the college. This “designation allows the college to operate the building, to program what’s going on inside, [and] to take advantage of what’s going on in the SUNY system, which allows us to access other sorts of money,” said Dr. Young.
“Day to day, we [wanted to] control and program what happens in these spaces. Dr. Young explained that in order for the college to “unlock other financial resources [to renovate and maintain the building],” all three of them needed to be held in trust by the college so the SUNY System knew that the buildings were strictly for college use.
But, SUNY Orange learned in the spring of 2019 that the County Legislature had met with a private developer that had a different proposal for the YMCA building. Young said that in subsequent meetings, it was communicated to her and the Board of Trustees that the county decided that the “YMCA was no longer available to the college, that they wanted to go in a different direction with the [building].”
“Since we had built the project around all three buildings, our plans no longer made sense [with just the two buildings]. There was too much financial risk. The plans that we had really counted on [involved the] YMCA building,” she said.
The Masonic Lodge had open spaces that would have been used as a space for community events. The space in the YMCA building had been separated into offices and was dry walled. According to Young, these dry wall spaces were later torn up. After these changes were made, “the YMCA [didn’t] retain any of its aesthetic value,” she said. “You can go into the YMCA and turn that space into anything you wanted it to be.”
The YMCA was additionally equipped to house machines for a possible advanced manufacturing curriculum that the college was entertaining. The building had the potential for “students [to] learn trades such as metalwork, carpentry, plumbing. We thought we needed that space in the YMCA to do that training work,” Dr. Young added. It’s also possible that the YMCA building could have added teaching kitchens or a laboratory space.
Unfortunately, the Masonic Lodge would not have been suitable for any of these ideas. “The college figured that it would lose money in the Masonic Lodge. We would have never be[en] able to bring in multiple types of learning experiences into the space. It’s an event space. We couldn’t have used that space in a way that was going to pay for itself.” Innovation Grand Street required the YMCA building “in order to afford and use the Masonic Lodge, while retaining its aesthetic qualities,” said Young.
When asked if she would be willing to return to negotiations, Young replied, “Absolutely.”
As for the grants, any money that was raised by SUNY Orange were all pledges that would have been eventually reimbursed to the college after the project was underway. Though the money cannot be used for anything else, all of the entities who contributed have not withdrawn their pledges from the project. “All of [them] said that ‘we will continue talking to you.’ Show us what you’re going to do, so [we’ll] have these conversations when the time comes,” explained Young.
The County Executive’s Office did not respond to immediate requests for comment.