Indoor water park eyed at Howe Caverns
Attraction would include 250-room hotel on 40 acres
HOWES CAVE A developer formerly associated with Six Flags, which operates the Great Escape theme park and indoor water park/lodge in Queensbury, is considering building a similar indoor water park and hotel on the grounds of Howe Caverns, business and local officials confirmed Friday.
“We are looking at other locations, but Howe Caverns is our No. 1 choice,” said Robert Schwartz, managing director of the Schwartz Heslin Group, a financial management and business planning firm in Latham.
The project, first outlined Thursday during a meeting with several Schoharie County and local officials, envisions a $75 million facility that would include a new 250-room hotel and a year-round, one-acre indoor water park on more than 40 acres in Howes Cave, a hamlet in the town of Cobleskill. It would be similar to the lodge across state Route 9 from the Great Escape amusement park near Lake George.
The principal developer is not affiliated with Six Flags Inc., according to Schwartz and representatives of Six Flags.
The project is proposed by Destinations Development Group, a private company headed by Chuck Roarty, Schwartz said.
When the Queensbury lodge was built in 2005, Roarty was hospitality vice president for Six Flags, which operates about 30 amusement parks throughout the country.
Six Flags spokeswoman Sandra Daniels said Roarty is not employed by the corporation and could not say when he left its employ. “There is no connection,” she said when asked if Six Flags or affiliates had an interest in the project.
Roarty could not be reached Friday, but he discussed DDG’s preliminary plans at Thursday’s meeting at the Schoharie County Office Building, according to Emil Galasso, co-owner of Howe Caverns.
The facility has the potential of creating approximately 350 jobs locally and generating as much as $1.5 million per year in sales and other taxes within Schoharie County, Galasso said.
About 80 percent of the jobs would likely be full-time, said Bob Holt, general manager of the caverns facilities.
If what he termed “impressive” results of preliminary feasibility studies pan out, Schwartz said developers expect to decide by October whether to proceed.
Pending planning and environmental reviews, construction could start “sometime in 2009,” he said.
“I’m doing everything in my power to get this,” said Galasso. “But it’s not a done deal yet,” he cautioned.
No applications have been filed for project reviews or government incentives, according to Alicia Terry, director of the county Planning and Development Agency, who coordinated Thursday’s discussion.
“We don’t have any applications or any written commitments from the company yet,” Terry said Friday.
The county Empire Zone Administrative Board, at its July 15 meeting, approved Galasso’s request to shift 43 acres from the Empire Zone at Cobleskill Stone Products’ Howes Cave quarry to the Howe Caverns property, according to county Economic Developer Jody Zakrevsky.
The request was approved on the county level for a then-unspecified “multimillion-dollar investment at Howe Caverns,” said Galasso, who also is president and owner of Cobleskill Stone Products.
If the shift is approved by state officials, the project would likely be eligible for wage and tax credits, local property tax reimbursements from the state and potential utility cost incentives in exchange for jobs created.
Galasso said Howe Caverns would supply the 43-acre site in the town of Cobleskill for the water park, hotel and parking lots. The caverns corporation, co-owned by Schoharie lawyer Charles Wright, would also have an unspecified financial investment in the project, according to Galasso.
Several county and local officials expressed enthusiasm and cautious optimism Friday about the concept outlined at the private meeting of officials from various agencies and government committees.
“The benefits would be tremendous,” said county Board of Supervisors Chairman Earl Van Wormer III. “If there’s a commitment from them, then the county would seek out other funding sources,” he said.
“I don’t see any down side to it. It’s going to be on an existing [attraction] site … and the idea that it would be partnering with a local group, Howe Caverns, that’s important,” Van Wormer said.
“It’s appealing to us, but a lot of other things that sounded good didn’t work out,” he added.
“I’m very positive about it,” said Cobleskill Supervisor Roger Cohn, especially after Lowe’s Companies canceled plans for a home improvement warehouse in the town recently.
“This would be a big benefit to our area,” Cohn said.
The development would likely also “increase our winter business immensely,” said Holt.
Howe Caverns attracts about 140,000 visitors yearly, making it second in the state only to Niagara Falls among natural attractions, according to Holt.
Currently the caverns employ about 150 full- and part-time workers in the summer and about 20 winter staff.
Galasso said developers first approached him about eight months ago. “I first thought they wanted to buy the caverns … but Howe Caverns is not for sale.”
After touring the Queensbury water park and hearing preliminary feasibility studies, Galasso said, he’s convinced the project would also help other area businesses, restaurants and tourist attractions.
“I see people going by bus to the Power Authority [in Blenheim], Sharon Springs, farms and Cooperstown,” Galasso said.
“There’s a lot to offer here. We’ve just got to bring it all together.”
Planning Director Terry agreed. “This project would be such an exciting boost to the tourism industry in the county, and a much-needed boost,” she said.
To make the project more easily accessible, the developer is also hoping the county will relocate about 6,800 feet of Sagendorf Corners Road in the towns of Cobleskill and Schoharie. That would provide a new primary entrance to Howe Caverns, and the water park, from state Route 7, said Holt.
The road, which begins as Howes Cave Road, winds past the entrance to the Howes Cave quarry. In addition to better bus access, relocating the road would also help visitors using GPS devices to find the attractions, Holt said.