Akwesasne Mohawk tribe eyes former GM parcel for heritage museum, library
MASSENA — A proposal by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe to develop an Akwesasne Heritage Complex featuring a new library, museum and archive facility is being reviewed by the St. Lawrence County Legislature, which needs to provide written support for the project before it can move forward.
The tribe wants to purchase and develop a 46.6-acre parcel along Route 37 on the south side of the former GM Powertrain site adjacent to the St. Regis Mohawk reservation and along the Raquette River.
Dale White, the tribe’s attorney, told county legislators Monday night the tribe is negotiating a purchase agreement with the property’s owner, Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust.
“We are in the very early stages of negotiating the purchase of the property at this point,” White said during a presentation to the county’s Finance Committee. “Before we can go much further with finalizing the letter of intent, we need the (county’s) letter of support. Once we receive that, we will be able to go forward for a development agreement that’s required and an actual sale agreement.”
Plans being developed by the Akwesasne Tourism Working Group also include a welcome/tourism center, along with ecotourism walking trails, and canoe, kayak and fishing areas.
RACER requires the tribe provide a letter of intent as well as letters of support from the town of Massena, the county and the redevelopment task force. The town of Massena has already provided its letter.
RACER would sell the property, but the development agreement would be negotiated between the town of Massena and the tribe. RACER assumed ownership of the property through a 2011 bankruptcy settlement and is performing the cleanup under the oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is also actively marketing the property.
“They insist that we have a development agreement so that they know exactly how that property is going to be developed,” White said.
A study by the state Department of Transportation showed that about 4.5 million cars pass by that stretch of Route 37 each year, said Gail McDonald, tribal heritage complex director.
“It’s a great location for welcoming guests into,” she said. “It’s right near the Canadian border, so there’s a opportunity to do some cross-border welcoming and invite folks to learn a little bit more about our community and our history.”
McDonald said some federal funding has been obtained to support cultural tourism, including a five-year grant. The project would create an estimated 42 new jobs.
“We have a lot to share with surrounding communities and the world about the Mohawk people from Akwesasne,” she said.
The project would cost an estimated $8 million to $10 million and likely be constructed in phases.
Local officials have expressed concerns about the loss of property tax revenue for the town of Massena and St. Lawrence County if the property is purchased by the tribe.
Legislator David Forsythe, R-Lisbon, asked if a viability study had been done to make sure the heritage complex was a viable project.
“In my area we have a couple different libraries and museums, and they struggle — economically, financially they struggle,” he said. “You’re talking about taking buildings down and building brand-new ones. Have you done a feasibility study to see if it can sustain?”
McDonald said the existing library was built in 1984 and the museum is in the basement, which is not ideal.
“We’re looking at what in fact we can afford,” she said. “We know it’s got to be sustainable. We can’t build anything that’s going to be a drain on the tribe.”
She said many funding opportunities exist for supporting cultural tourism for Native Americans.
Legislator Anthony Arquiett, D-Helena, is chairman of the North Country Redevelopment Task Force, which has also been asked to support the project. He said the proposed heritage complex could possibly enhance the sale of the GM property, but there’s concern that in the future the parcel will be annexed into the reservation.
“As you know I negotiated the Native American land claim deal with the county, and through those conversations it was very clear from folks from the tribe how important their land was,” he said. “I made it very clear from our side that land was equally important to us.”
Arquiett said he’s not sure if the county is ready to sign a letter of support.
White said the property is now only assessed for $300 and has not been considered as prime area for development. The tribe has a water line that would serve the parcel.
“I think it’s made for a project like this,” he said. “The tribe has been the only one as far as I know that’s been interested in this property. We see it as a fit. We don’t see it as taking anything away from St. Lawrence County.”
Legislature Chairman Joseph Lightfoot. R-Ogdensburg, said the towns he represents are concerned that the tribe will continue to spread out in the future by purchasing additional properties adjacent to the former GM parcel. Land owned by the tribe does not pay property or school taxes.