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Clayton officials say development projects fill gaps in tourist town

There's a lot of development just around the corner in Clayton, a summer tourist destination on the St. Lawrence River. Town and village officials – and local business owners – are excited about several projects in the works that could put back to use a former industrial site along the river.

The former site of the Frink America snowplow manufacturing facility was a hub of activity in Clayton for many years. The business employed more than 200 people, and the site also at one time held a village train station, where vacationers would get off and get ready to cross over to luxury hotels on islands in the St. Lawrence. 

Since 2000, the site has been abandoned – a prime piece of riverfront real estate has been nothing more than an empty lot, providing occasional overflow parking for village events and concerts at the Clayton Opera House.

But that's about to change. The town and village hope once again to draw people closer to the river, and more tourists into the community, with a spate of development projects all in the works right now.

"This is from the river side. And this is from the street side," says Village mayor Norma Zimmer. She and Local Development Corporation chief Kristi Dippel look over the blueprints for the new pavilion modeled on the old train station.

"Now there isn't anything there that's enclosed," Zimmer says. "So you can have concerts, a place to have a picnic and be out of the sun. And the regional dock is right in front of it."

"It's going to be a nice gateway, from the river side," says Dippel. "We currently don't really have any gateways that announce that you're in Clayton, but this is going to be a nice gateway from the river side as you come into Clayton."

Ground was broken earlier this month on the pavilion.

This new gateway from the river is just the beginning. Town Supervisor Justin Taylor describes a new public dock for bigger boats.

"This would be for 26 feet and up, vessels that typically transit in front of Clayton, but don't have a place to stop and park," Taylor says. "So what we're going to be able to offer is, on a reservation basis, if a boat knows that they're transiting the Seaway in front of Clayton, they can call, say, 'I need a place for my 40-foot boat for three days,' and we can guarantee that there will be a spot for them."

An extended pedestrian pathway will wrap around the Frink site, guaranteeing public access to the river there.

The pavilion and the first section of the riverwalk extension should be ready by Memorial Day. The town hopes to put the boat dock project out to bid later this year.

But there's another project in the works, too – and it's a big one, one that could transform the empty lot. The town is negotiating the sale of the property to developers who envision a luxury hotel there. Plans call for between 120 and 140 rooms in five stories – which, aside from church steeples, could make the hotel the tallest building in the community.

And that's got some residents worried. At a public meeting in November, Town Supervisor Taylor and others fielded questions about the hotel's size and design, and heard accusations that it was out of character and scale with the rest of the village. Taylor says the developer is taking those concerns into consideration and may make changes to the design.

I went to the Frink site with Allen Benas, owner of the 1000 Islands Inn, a small historic hotel with a view of the river. You might think Benas would be feeling threatened by the plans for a huge new hotel across the street, but instead, he's thrilled.

"You can't have more hotel rooms filled and not have more business on the streets," says Benas.

Benas has lived in Clayton full-time since 1960, and run his inn for 35 years. He says his business caters to a different crowd than the planned luxury hotel. And he's excited about the other projects in store near the Frink site, too.

As Benas and I stand at the former Frink industrial site, where the new hotel will be located, to our left is Frink Park, where they're starting work on the pavilion. And then the riverwalk will also be connected to both of these sites.  I ask Benas what he's looking forward to as we see these projects come to fruition?

"Bringing more people to Clayton," says Benas. "The Opera House is doing a spectacular job, the new pavilion over here will give us a new venue for community events, concerts and that, and the new hotel of course will give us a hundred and some odd rooms to accommodate a class of people that we haven't been able to get for many years. We've never had a high-end, modern facility."

Benas calls the hotel the “crowning glory” of all the projects planned for the community.

"Again, this is just part of the master plan to bring Clayton back to the grandeur that it once enjoyed," he says. Clayton is all about the river – the 1000 Islands are all about the river – and this'll just get people closer to the river.”

The goal is to open the hotel by spring of 2014.