GHENT—On March 25 Art Omi announced the withdrawal of its application that was pending before the Ghent Planning Board for an expansion of the Charles B. Benenson Visitors Center. The plan the board was reviewing would have more than doubled the size of the building to include an educational center, a second art gallery and more office space for existing employees.
“Art Omi has officially withdrawn its application to improve and expand the Sculpture & Architecture Park facilities. It does this because of the lack of support shown by the Ghent Planning Board, despite overwhelming support from the community. We regret this decision but have decided to pursue alternative plans,” Francis Greenburger, founder and chairman of Art Omi Inc., said in a press release.
Art Omi had applied for Planning Board authorization to modify the organization’s special use permit granted in 2005 by the town.
The Ghent Town Board released a statement saying the Town Board was disappointed to learn of Art Omi’s decision. “The Town Board has been fully supportive of this project and the public expressed an outpouring of enthusiasm and excitement about it as well. While the Planning Board has an obligation to thoroughly review each project, we were hopeful they would be able to work with one of the county’s premier arts organizations and a major economic driver for this area to come to a satisfactory conclusion. We value Art Omi and appreciate its significant financial investment in our community over the past twenty-nine years, providing residents free access to its beautiful fields and spaces for culture and recreation. While we understand the organization’s decision to plan for a future project in another town, we hope Art Omi will continue to consider Ghent its home,” the release reads.
Art Omi, on county Route 22, submitted plans to the Planning Board in the spring of 2019. The Art Omi site includes a 120-acre outdoor sculpture park. The visitors center, which is in the park, houses the Newmark Gallery, a cafe and administrative offices.
“We are so grateful for the support we have received from our friends and neighbors throughout the application process,” Ruth Adams, Art Omi’s executive director, said in the press release. “We remain committed to developing robust educational programs for the public, and will continue to find ways to make the most of our current spaces for the benefit of our visitors and community—especially our youngest art appreciators.”
Education programs have continued throughout the year at the Benenson Center. And Art Omi, a non-profit facility, plans to host its summer camp with limited numbers and Covid precautions.
In a phone interview this week, Ms. Adams said that the plan to expand the visitors center was about the education program. “It’s going to be really tough,” she said of finding space for those programs.
Addressing the application to expand the Benenson Center, the organization says, in the release, “Art Omi is a key contributor to Columbia County’s growing creative economy, and contributes more than $5 million each year in economic impact to the local area.” The release also notes that the Art Omi education program has formed partnerships with area organizations and with school districts that come to the park for field trips.
At a public hearing on the project in March of 2020, the board expressed concern over traffic and events at the site. At the March 4, 2020 public hearing, Planning Board member Jen Stoner, who owns property that abuts Art Omi, said she felt that Art Omi had grown beyond what the town law permits as a cultural arts center. “It is now, to me, a recreational facility. It is beyond what the definition of what a cultural arts center is, according to our zoning,” Ms. Stoner said.
‘We remain committed to developing robust educational programs for the public…’
Ruth Adams, exec. dir.
Art Omi conducted traffic studies presented to the Planning Board at meetings showing the traffic on the roads would not change much from how it is now. Omi also presented the board with numbers of visitors for events and agreed not to rent out any of their buildings.
At a May 6, 2020 Planning Board public hearing several people spoke in support of Art Omi’s proposal.
The Planning Board closed the public hearing after the May 6 meeting, but had questions for Art Omi to answer about events planned at the new expanded site and wanted to set conditions before voting on the plan. Art Omi representatives and attorneys met with the Planning Board twice in June of 2020. At the June 6 meeting Ms. Adams, the Art Omi executive director, presented adjusted attendance numbers for events. At the June 16 meeting, according to the minutes, the board discussed construction hours, speed reduction measures on Letter S Road next to the Sculpture Park and hours for outdoor events.
Ms. Adams told The Columbia Paper the Planning Board discussed capping the number of visitors.
“We were stunned,” she said. In the press release, the arts organization says that “the proposed restrictions would have negatively affected Art Omi’s future sustainability and the organization’s ability to carry out its community-based programs.”
She also pointed out that the board had already closed the public hearing in May. The board has also reviewed the state Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and gave the project a negative declaration, which means it does not have a major impact on the environment.
At the August 5 Planning Board meeting there was a discussion with Art Omi’s attorney, John Lyons, about the number of visitors to the park. The board requested more information.
The minutes of that meeting say: “After a heated discussion about previous delays, [Planning Board Attorney Mitch] Khosrova adds that the board had asked for things that they continuously didn’t get and continued to go in circles and would like to move forward with this and any information would need to be received 10 days prior to the meeting.”
The Art Omi press release last week said, “Art Omi made the decision to withdraw the application after failing to come to an agreement with the Planning Board about issues including visitor numbers and traffic levels.”
Ms. Adams said this week that the plan to expand was always about “doing what we do now” but better. She also said that Art Omi wanted to work with the Planning Board but that some of the concerns felt subjective and arbitrary. “We’ve tried to be really good neighbors,” she said.
An email to the Planning Board chair for comment was not returned by press deadline.
Currently the gallery at the Benenson Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Registration is not required, but access is limited to 12 people at a time and visitors must wear masks. Art Omi is also now requiring that visitors to the Sculpture Park must register for a day and time on weekends and select holidays and suggesting it for weekdays. “One registration is required per vehicle group. A suggested donation of $10 per person is encouraged for non-members, but we welcome all visitors regardless of donation,” according to their organization’s website, artomi.org