Balancing Past and Future in Staatsburg

A friend recently commented about my Assembly District, saying  “I know you have MANY communities!” and she is right. The Hudson Valley is rich with the sense of community, and that’s one of the things I truly love about this region. In representing 19 different towns — and one city — I share in all those communities and get to know the interesting, innovative, engaged people who live there.

One of the region’s most unique and charming communities is the hamlet of Staatsburg, in the northern corner of the Town of Hyde Park.  Reminiscent of an English village that surrounds a great estate, Staatsburg is home to 400 proud residents; the pioneering Anderson Center for Autism; the storybook Staatsburg Library; the verdant Dinsmore Golf Course; and the majestic Mills Mansion, the gilded era country home of Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills and the riverfront Mills-Norrie State Park which together make up the Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

On a recent Saturday, we started our day in Staatsburg at the Anderson Center, which was hosting Autism Tomorrow, a one-day conference that brought together more than 100 experts and advocates to discuss current issues surrounding autism spectrum disorder, as well as changes in research and public perception.  Among the highlights was a talk by Dr. Paul Wang, MD, the head of medical research at Autism Speaks.

The little hamlet was also host to dozens of volunteers for  I Love My Park Day, an annual event  held each spring where 95 New York State Parks and Historic Sites across the state welcome thousands of volunteers to join in cleanup, beautification and improvement projects to help our local parks recover from the hard, cold winter and prepare for the busy summer season ahead. It was great to see an eager group of Marist College students at the Mills Mansion site ready to tackle weeding, raking and mulching on a perfect spring day.

State parks and historic sites like those in Staatsburg can be significant drivers for the local economy. A regional report released last year titled “The Economic Importance of Great Estates Historic Sites and Parks,” identified $65 million in economic benefit from the historic homes along the Hudson River to Dutchess County alone. This translates to roughly $4 billion annually spent by tourists who come to the Hudson Valley to discover the region’s history, culture, cuisine, natural beauty, activities, charming villages, and stunning viewsheds.

Nonetheless, many sites, like Mills Mansion, struggle to stabilize the funding needed to protect museum-quality treasures, increase attendance by having adequate staff for regular tours and secure a viable future.  The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees hundreds of state historic sites, state parks and campgrounds, has invested millions of dollars in capital improvements to the site over the last few years — $6.5 million to restore the grand portico and $14 million on rebuilding stone walls and other grounds work. But significantly more is needed to both maintain a site like this and support ongoing operations. While the monies raised by private donations and groups like the Friends of Mills Mansion help, the State continues to look for ways to ensure the site’s sustainability into the future, including public-private partnerships.

To this end, State Parks supported the introduction of legislation which proposes to increase the maximum length of leases they may offer to private partners from 20 to 40 years in an effort to attract greater investment. For the Staatsburgh site, this change would apply to the carriage barn, dairy barn, and mansion.  These would join Hoyt House and its barns, and Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills state park, which already fall under 40 year lease terms.  State Parks expects to put out an RFP within the next few months to assess potential investor interest.

To ensure the voices of neighbors, local leaders and other stakeholders are heard, my office and the office of Sen. Sue Serino are hosting a community information meeting with Commissioner Rose Harvey of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from 5 to 7 pm at the Danny Kaye Theater at the Culinary Institute of America, Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY.  We encourage everyone with an interest in the stewardship of this site to join us.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is an extraordinary state and local resource that tells the story of a very colorful part of our region’s rich past. Everyone involved wants to ensure it is experienced by many more people now and into the future.  As a former museum professional, I am committed to working towards the long-term sustainability of this very special piece of New York history without compromising the integrity of the historic home and its collections.

About Diner Dialogues

Didi Barrett was elected to the New York State Assembly in a special election in March 2012 and re-elected to a full term in November 2012. Her district, the 106th AD, covers some of the most beautiful parts of Columbia and Dutchess Counties. She has deep roots in the Hudson Valley and came to elected office after a career as a community activist, writer and longtime leader of not-for-profit organizations. Didi is passionate about the agricultural, natural, cultural and historic resources of the Hudson Valley and their critical importance as economic engines and job generators. She is also a great fan of the iconic diners that dot the region. As a member of the Assembly she serves on the Committees on Aging; Agriculture; Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry; Mental Health; Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development and Veterans Affairs.
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