Who Wouldn’t Want a $500 Million Theme Park in Their Town?

You live in a small town where people cherish their open space. Neighbors drop in without calling ahead, and come together in a townwide $5 charity challenge.

A developer wants to come in and build a $500 million theme park, promising all kinds of jobs and revenue.

Do you want this?

Or do you organize to try to stop it, even if you have never been an activist before?

On a lustrous September morning, Nick Gallo looked out his backyard at the trees separating his modest home from the candy-colored dreamscape of Legoland New York, a 150-acre theme park that fully opened in July. Mr. Gallo, 73, a retired electrician, moved to this Hudson Valley town from Brooklyn 50 years ago to get away from the noise and crowding.

A sign on a neighbor’s lawn shouted in foot-high capital letters, “STOP LEGOLAND.”

His is a subdivision of quiet streets all named after trees. With a wry smile, he described the woods beyond his back fence as a place he cannot go without risk of arrest.

“It’s a billion-dollar corporation, and we spent $40,000 to $50,000 fighting it,” Mr. Gallo said, speaking without bitterness of a battle that had consumed much of the last five years. “We fought a good fight and we lost,” he said. “That’s it. They wanted it. How are you going to stop that?”

The town of Goshen, tucked between the New York City suburbs and the second-home havens of the Catskills, is horse country and black dirt farmland, where Noah Webster once taught school and the blue limestone spire of First Presbyterian Church is the tallest structure for miles. Until the late 1970s, when the racetrack ended betting, Goshen was a destination on the harness racing circuit, where weekend crowds numbered in the tens of thousands.

It is a town of rolling hills and thick woodlands, where street signs in the village have horses on them and the Harness Racing Museum and its 183-year-old trotting track — now home to races only two weekends a year — anchor the downtown historic district. A craft brew pub sits next to Thank Goodness It’s Vegan, and the former Chabad community center is cater-corner to First Presbyterian.

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By The New York Times

Rising up over this, on a hill that was previously woods and farmland, is Legoland, the first new major outdoor theme park in the Northeast since Great Adventure opened in Jackson, N.J., in 1974.

The park has pitted neighbor against neighbor, spurring accusations of self-dealing and anti-Semitism and driving people, many in their 70s, to become first-time activists. Since 2018, state inspectors have cited Legoland for 67 environmental violations and fined it more than $600,000.

Nerves here are still raw in some quarters.

“Legoland divided this town,” said Sandra Rothenberger, 73, who remains one of the park’s vocal opponents. “Goshen was a really nice town. Everybody knew everybody, everybody would help you, people said hello to you on the street.” Now, she said, any conversation might turn nasty.

“It’ll never be the way it was,” she said. “I just don’t say anything about Legoland anymore. It wasn’t that way before. And it wouldn’t be that way if they hadn’t have come in here.”

Not everyone shares that assessment.

On a recent morning in Goshen’s 18th-century town hall, Douglas Bloomfield, the town supervisor, waved a clipping from Smithsonian magazine naming Goshen as one of “The 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2021,” with Legoland as the principal reason. He cited three new hotels and two large-scale restaurants that were being developed in town because of the theme park. Who wouldn’t want that kind of boost?

Mr. Bloomfield, along with state and county officials, competed aggressively to attract the project, seeing it as a financial bonanza that would bring 1,000-plus jobs and money from two million visitors annually. They found ways around a law that specifically banned amusement parks, and they offered Legoland a 20-year exemption from property taxes, plus $25 million in state funding to make the area more accommodating. In turn, the park will pay $88 million over 20 years — considerably less than it would have paid in property taxes — plus a fee for every ticket sold, as well as taxes on its sales and its hotel revenue. About $61 million will go to Goshen schools over two decades.

When the project was introduced in 2016, battles began almost immediately — over traffic and the environment, over a threat to the small town’s character. Scare talk spread, ungrounded: that if the town did not approve Legoland, the site would instead become high-density housing, possibly for Hasidic Jews like those who have formed enclaves in the area.

Mr. Bloomfield cast the park’s opponents as a vocal minority made up of recent arrivals who “want to pull the bridge up after them.”

At a packed town hearing in December 2016, with 900 people attending, a chemistry teacher named Denise Tzouganatos, who opposed the park, served notice of the turbulence to come.

“I want to bring to your attention the division that this project has given our town,” Ms. Tzouganatos said. “We have had neighbor versus neighbor, we have had people on social media destroying each other, not speaking to each other, and it has carried over into our school.” She added, “I don’t know if we’ll be able to heal at this time.”

Two people dressed as Lego characters, holding a cardboard sign that said “LEGO LAND EARTH FIRST!” were escorted out by security.

Supporters said the divisive force was not Legoland, but the protesters.

Stephen Serkes, owner of the restaurant Catherine’s, was one of the park’s prominent supporters. In the spring of 2017, before the project was even approved, the battle of Legoland came to him over an item on his menu: a $14 calorie bomb called the Legoland Burger, made with pulled pork, mac and cheese, bacon, cheese, crunchy slaw and a half-pound beef patty.

When opponents of Legoland picketed outside the restaurant, supporters showed up in force, ordering 100 burgers. Opinions spilled out on the restaurant’s Facebook page:

“Just a stupid move. Tacky and leaving bad taste in many people’s mouths.”

“lol I hate you people. I can’t wait for Lego land to open so all you cry babies leave.”

Mr. Serkes eventually removed the dish from the menu. But the conflict, he said, was a measure of how needlessly negative things had become in town. For three decades, his restaurant had been a place where Goshen residents came together, not a place of division.

“That outfit took it too far, the people who were against Legoland,” he said. “You’re going to slam a local guy about a burger? Picket outside a restaurant because of a burger?”

Since the theme park opened this summer, business has been up 30 percent, he said. At Elsie’s Luncheonette nearby, Aimee Smith-Bywater said she had to take reservations for the first time in the restaurant’s history — a welcome lift “after the horrific year we had,” she said.

Mr. Serkes said the park’s opponents were simply against change in any form. “They’re against everything,” he said. “You have to grow as a community. You can’t go backwards.”

Debra Corr, 65, would disagree. Ms. Corr owns a 104-acre horse farm a few miles from Legoland and a real estate brokerage handling horse properties. On a recent Monday, she went from mucking stalls to a sales call, changing shoes and spraying her hair with dry shampoo in between so she wouldn’t smell of manure.

Ms. Corr was among the first to protest the theme park, organizing neighbors as Concerned Citizens for the Hudson Valley. She does not present as the ingratiating type — a sign in her office reads Center for Disturbed Women — but she brought tenacious energy to the group. They raised money by redeeming bottles and soliciting donations, and educated themselves in dense legislation like the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR.

They were self-taught activists, of varied political faiths. Neighbors said they became too strident, creating quarrels even after the park was a done deal.

“We went to college on Legoland,” said Christine Miele, 75, current president of the group. “When this started, none of us knew anything about site plans, SEQR, environmental reviews, nothing. I don’t think any of us had been to a board meeting, except maybe to put a deck on their house or something.”

They drew up a whiteboard to trace ties among elected officials, lawyers and advisory bodies. Ms. Miele and Ms. Corr traveled to Winterhaven, Fla., to study the effects of a Legoland theme park there.

“We lost trust in the system, because there were too many intertwined connections in the system,” Ms. Miele said.

None of it stopped the park. When construction began in 2018, so did complaints about noise and topsoil runoff into the nearby Otter Kill creek, which the State Department of Environmental Conservation classifies as a “stressed” stream.

The department’s March fine of $346,000 is the highest penalty settlement for storm-water cases in the region in the last three years.

The violations have tapered since the heavy construction period, but state inspectors found runoff as recently as July. The Department of Environmental Conservation has not studied how or whether the runoff has affected the Otter Kill. But under current agreements the agency does not anticipate long-term damage from Legoland, said Kelly Turturro, the department’s regional director.

Park officials insisted that Legoland was committed to protecting the environment.

“We’ve complied with every order the D.E.C. has given us and worked very closely with local and town officials to make sure that we’re in compliance,” said Matt Besterman, the park’s spokesman. “It’s something that we are always working on.” The company also committed to planting thousands of trees and adding new topsoil and drainage measures.

Ms. Corr still bristles with anger toward the park and the officials who approved it, regretting only that more of her neighbors did not join the campaign to stop it. “They assumed the town would turn it down,” she said. “Then they come up to me and say, ‘Deb, why are they building this? I thought you guys beat it.’ And I say, ‘No, you weren’t there to fight along with us.’”

Such concerns disappear within the plastic utopia of the park itself, which is surrounded by a 150-acre buffer area.

On a steamy afternoon in August, the grounds buzzed with families experiencing a synaptic sugar rush. Child-size characters made of Lego bricks lined walkways or sat on benches, with open seats for visitors to join them — 15,000 figures, 30 million bricks.

Mr. Besterman declined to give attendance figures, but he said the demand for tickets had been strong, even with the pandemic.

The appeal of the park, aimed at children under 12, is straightforward and hard to resist: Wouldn’t it be cool if you could live inside the world of a Lego set?

An 11-foot-high dinosaur in kaleidoscopic colors, made of 182,000 Lego bricks? It’s here. Ditto a scaled-down Mount Rushmore, Yankee Stadium and Las Vegas Strip. You can buy Lego sets, watch Lego movies, wear Lego clothing, even eat Lego-colored ice cream.

Disorder and decay, the stuff of organic matter, do not exist here. With enough Lego bricks, anything is possible.

Oh, to be a 7-year-old.

At the 250-room Legoland Hotel on the park grounds, rooms are family-size and come in themes like pirate, ninja, and medieval castle. Instead of phones to call the front desk, rooms have digital tablets powered with Google Assistant to answer questions and tell bedtime stories.

It is a system with some quirks.

“Hey, Google, what’s the Wi-Fi password?”

“Sorry, I didn’t get that. Please text the Service Wizard at (845) 378-4486 or Scan the QR Code in the Guest Info Hub for assistance.”

OK, then!

In the hotel lobby’s men’s room, a mechanized voice says, “George Clooney, is that you?”

Dalan Hopper, 15, visiting with his family, took one look at the Lego models in the park and wanted to know how he could get a job making them. “I just thought it was cool,” he said. The Hoppers were the second family in line that morning and planned to stay until closing.

Dalan said building with Lego sets at home calmed him, especially compared with the stress of the non-Lego world. “Gets my mind off some things,” he said.

But in a fundamental way, Legoland runs counter to the experience of building with Lego bricks. The latter is slow-paced, solitary and meditative, a quiet cocoon that blocks out other stimulation. The theme park, by contrast, is hyper-stimulating, 360 degrees of nonstop visual pop. Though there are some hands-on opportunities, you are not a builder; you are a brick.

Some economists say towns tend to overestimate the economic benefits of theme parks like Legoland. The jobs they create are mostly low-paying, and many would probably have been created anyway, with fewer incentives and less disruption, said Timothy J. Bartik, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Municipalities may also incur costs down the line, when roads and pipes need to be rebuilt because of the increased use from park visitors.

For now, the park presents a balancing act among competing values: tourism revenue versus environmental preservation and traditional small-town character. Each makes demands; each benefits someone. What would you be willing to give up?

“It’s nice to have the nature,” said Brent Kunis, who owns Orange County Bagel, over by the old Good Time Park racetrack. “But my God, I don’t know how you turn down such a deal like that.”

For Chris Caffery, a guitarist in the heavy metal band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the proof was in the park. Mr. Caffery, 54, grew up partly in Goshen and moved back to care for his mother.

“I toured the world for 34 years and I loved going to Disney or anywhere like that, so the thought that something like that would wind up in my hometown was very exciting,” he said. Far from disturbing the community, he pointed out, the park is barely noticeable, and the traffic no worse than before.

He urged neighbors who were still upset to calm down and try it — a metalhead voice of moderation.

“I go there to do miles of cardio walking, up and down the park and just watching everybody be happy. I’ll jump on the roller coaster and then head back home. It’s something I’m very happy about.”

Deb and Patrick Cuddy said the park ran counter to all their reasons for moving to Goshen 13 years ago. After five years of fighting it, they’ve bought a property upstate, where they plan to relocate.

“It’s ruined the landscape and changed the identity of our town,” Ms. Cuddy said. Now when she tells people she lives in Goshen, she said, it hurts when they identify the town with Legoland.

“We’ve said all along, we don’t want to live here, with this,” she said. “We want to relocate to someplace quiet, like Goshen used to be.”

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