POWNAL — Town officials are hopeful decisive steps will be taken to deal with the fire-gutted grandstand building on the former Green Mountain Race Track site.
According to information provided to the Select Board, and to residents who’ve pressed to have the concrete and steel structure demolished, the state Division of Fire Safety is considering a recommendation that the grandstand be razed.
Town officials contacted the regional office of the division after unsuccessfully working with the track ownership group, Green Mountain Race Track, LLC, and managing partner Stephen Soler of Connecticut.
Local officials said the owner, who could not be reached for comment Friday, had failed to adequately secure the property or proceed with demolition of the grandstand despite assurances of cooperation.
Following the early morning fire in September 2020, investigators determined the likely cause was related to youths entering the vacant three-story structure to party while apparently lighting campfires on the cement floors.
Select Board liaison Rebecca Dragon recently prepared a report to the Select Board, which was read at the annual Pownal floor meeting on Monday and discussed during a board meeting Thursday.
She said she had spoken with Gerald “GJ” Garrow, manager of the regional office of the fire safety division, about his findings in the matter, which he had sent on to “headquarters.”
Dragon added, “In these orders, [Garrow] is demanding that the building be torn down ... It is his conclusion that this action would be the only way that property could be made a safe environment.”
Town officials and residents who have contacted state officials directly to urge a solution – including Jim Kocsis and Jenny Dewar – were informed that a decision on a demolition order would likely go before Jennifer Morrison, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety.
The commissioner’s office did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
In reply Friday to an inquiry from the Banner, Michael Desrochers, executive director of the Division of Fire Safety, said in an email, “We have a draft document (findings and orders) currently being reviewed at my level, and next week there will be some internal discussions to discuss the next steps towards resolution. We have attempted for some time to get the structure secured from trespassing which has been unsuccessful in part because after securing the structure itself (boarding it up) — vandals still found ways to enter the structure and cause damage. The building contains asbestos and therefor there is a hazard abatement/remediation challenge.”
Desrochers added, “After our discussions next week, we will have next steps mapped out, and I can better advise you on our enforcement action moving forward. This is a priority of ours and working together I hope to have some movement.”
In her report to the Select Board, Dragon said she learned that “the building needs to be demolished with asbestos regulations, usually done by wetting and dismantling (no implosion) ... This situation is fully in the hands of the state now, and the town of Pownal has no more direct involvement with any legal or civil action regarding this situation.”
Green Mountain Race Track was considered a budding rival to Saratoga Race Course when it opened in May 1963 as a thoroughbred and harness race track. But horse racing meets became less profitable and later were abandoned, and the track switched to greyhound racing in the mid-1970s before closing for good in 1991.
The property was sold at auction in 1992 to the late John Tietgens, of Clarksburg, Mass., and several attempts followed to revive horse racing there but were unsuccessful.
Tietgens sold the track property in 2004 to a group of investors called Progress Partners, and it now is owned by the entity, Green Mountain Race Track, LLC.
Reached shortly after the 2020 fire, Soler said the owners had done “a significant amount” of work to secure the vacant grandstand and would evaluate what to do next with the property.
While vacant prior to the blaze, the structure already had sustained water and other damage from roof leaks and floodwaters that had overflowed from the nearby Hoosic River.
Planning officials in Bennington County have long listed the race track parcel – just north of the Williamstown, Mass., border – as a prime site for redevelopment. But the stumbling block usually mentioned is the charred hulk of the imposing former grandstand.