A California man is seeking to acquire the Erie Canal Village and turn the site into “Cross Roads Redemption Church.”
Richard Rios of Brea, Calif., said Tuesday that he will purchase the property from current owner Wheelhorse Development. Ron Prince, who was leasing the property with an option to purchase, assigned the option to Rios’ church earlier this month.
Rios said Tuesday he hopes to officially own the Village by the end of this week.
The 210-acre historic site is located at 5789 Rome-New London Road, and was valued at $348,967 by the city in 2018.
Rios has operated a Facebook page called “Cross Roads Redemption Church” expressing interest in the site since December. In January, he visited Rome to view the property and met with city officials in the Assessor’s Office and in Codes Enforcement.
“The transfer of the church plant property in (New York) should be completed this week. Then it’s off to find a pastor for the new church,” he said in a Facebook post on April 16.
Rios has also said that he registered “Cross Roads Redemption Church” with the government of Oneida County, and that the parish would be non-denominationally Christian.
He told the Sentinel that he plans to turn the Village into “a kind of retreat, where people can go to sit, relax, and ... have little alcoves to be in prayer and stuff.”
Rios said he does not have a plan for all the buildings on the property, given that many structures on the site have been red-tagged, but that he would use the presentation building as a chapel.
“My hope is to have an opportunity to have services at what used to be the presentation building. It’s a great little building for that. It’s already set up with audio, it’s got pews ...,” he said.
The Village is in a “Natural Areas” district, according to city zoning maps. A “place of worship” is not a permitted use of property in such a district under the city’s zoning code, though it’s possible for Rios to seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals to move forward with his project.
When the city sold Erie Canal Village in 2002, the sale deed contained a clause stipulating that any owner must “operate the premises ... as a Museum/Tourist Facility” open to the public, or else “the title may revert back to the city of Rome.” The church plan does not appear to conform to this stipulation, but Rios said he will seek to comply.
“We’ll obviously need to work within the framework of the city. The process to actually get a variance for that, will it happen? I don’t know, it’s kind of up to the city ... I just think we’re on the cusp of having an opportunity to work together. I think we can accompish everyone’s goals and hopefully the city will see that ... We want to have a church, but they also want to open this up and do what they can to the benefit of the community,” he said.
Rios continued: “What’s the alternative? Most of the buildings are red-tagged. Do I comply with the city and say ‘okay, I’ll tear them down,’ and now the property’s not worth anything? I don’t want to do that. I’m really hoping that everyone can see that the best way to get through this is to work together.”
Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo on Tuesday said that Rios had been made aware of issues with zoning and deed resitrictions when he visited City Hall in January.
“The area is not zoned for a church, he’s been told that,” she said. “Also, the deed restrictions that were in place in the original deed are still relevant. They’re still applicable in the new transfer.”
“I think it’s going to be very diffifult” for Rios to seek a Zoning Board variance to operate the site as a church, the mayor continued.
“That’s a preservation zone, and we just updated our zoning. Things like that were taken into consideration, and it’s pretty clear looking at the new zoning code that that’s not the intention.”
The mayor added that if Rios is able to run the property as a church, that “(the city) will not zone all that acreage as a church, so it will not all be tax exempt. He would have to apply for tax exempt status, and then the assessor would render an opinion.”
The site has long-term issues Rios would need to address, as well. There are still city-owned artifacts in buildings on the site, and there is limited vehicle access to the property, as the pedestrian bridge cannot support equipment that may be needed to repair the buildings.
Rios wrote in a January post: “Unfortunately, when the items were placed in storage it doesn’t appear that a lot of care was taken to preserve the artifacts. Furniture was placed on furniture without any padding or protection. Other items were left uncovered. I went back to the city and showed them pictures. We will work with the city or Historical Society to ensure anything of historical value is preserved to the best of our ability.”
He reiterated on Tuesday that he had spoken with Society executive director Art Simmons and still planned to work with him to secure the artifacts.
“Our interest is to work to see this situation remedied and that the historical resources that remain there be preserved,” Historical Society Executive Director Arthur Simmons said of the artifact removal last week.
Mayor Izzo has said that the city has no place to store the artifacts.
Rios said he plans to build culverts to allow vehicle access. There is still a steam-engine locomotive on the property, which is owned by Wheelhorse. Rios said the culvert would be built quickly to get the train off the property.
When the property is officially transferred, Rios said he will return to Rome to walk the property with Simmons and Third Ward Common Councilor Kimberly A. Rogers, who represents the area where the Village sits.
Rios said he learned of the property through Ron Prince, who was leasing the property from Wheelhorse. He said he had known Prince previously, and that the latter apporached him about buying the property last summer.
Rios is the elected Republican city treasurer of Brea, California, and said he currently “runs a couple of ministries” in southern California.
Meanwhile, a post yesterday on a Facebook page titled “Friends of the Erie Canal Village” took aim at the city regarding the property’s demise. In a post by Edwin R. Williams, administrator of the page, he claims “the city did its best to keep anyone from ever revitalizing the property/ From preventing the village from using 3/4 of the parking lot, to shoddy...repairs on the access road, the city has made it clear they don’t want the place to do anything but rot in the swamp.”