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Horse Therapy Program Envisioned for Knox Stables After State Rejects Brewery Proposal


by Tony Farina

A proposal to develop a distillery/brewery in the legendary stables of Knox Farm State Park–the only response to a state RFP issued in June for development and enhancement of the barns–has been rejected by the state and the president of the Stables at Knox, Inc., is working to develop a new plan that would create a world-class horse therapy program at the facility for ailing adults, children with special needs, and wounded warriors.

“It is critical to secure and maintain Knox Farm State Park’s Stables and Equestrian Facility in the serene pastoral setting it has always been,” John Mead Hatcher, president and director of the Stables at Knox, Inc., told Artvoice this week. Hatcher said the therapy program would continue the “family-centric” atmosphere that has existed at the stables from the beginning.

 John Mead Hatcher favors Knox Park horse therapy sanctuary
John Mead Hatcher favors Knox Park horse therapy sanctuary

As we reported in the Sept. 1 edition of Artvoice, the group Concerned Citizens had voiced opposition to the establishment of a brewery in the 84 acres of the horse stables, the only response received to a state RFP issued in June for “development and enhancement of the stable farms.” Critics argued the state offered only a five-week window to respond to its RFP, and that it was not promoted locally.

The only response to that June RFP was from Julie Ciolek, who had pledged to invest $539,000 in capital projects at the park in return for a 10-year renewable lease, and her husband, Lenny, told this newspaper last week that the proposal was consistent with enhancing the stables with the for-profit motivation only a small piece of the plan.

Nonetheless, the brewery proposal triggered strong local opposition and the state this week, in a press release issued on Monday, rejected the Ciolek proposal, saying it would “reassess and reevaluate the needs for Knox Farm State Park after receiving only one proposal for development and enhancement of the stable barns.”

State Parks says it remains interested in revitalizing the barns and encouraging equestrian or farm-based activities at Knox Farm State Park and that once a reevalution occurs “all future proposals will be reviewed and thoroughly vetted to ensure that not only the integrity of the property is maintained but that there is enough of a financial benefit to the taxpayers of New York State.”

Hatcher, the president of The Stables at Knox, sees the state’s rejection of the brewery proposal as a wonderful opportunity to develop his sanctuary vision and he is working to form a coalition to work together to bring it to life and create a “successful and sustainable world-class operation that will provide great outcomes and enhance the lives of families, children and American heroes thoughout Western New York for generations to come.”

Horse therapy helps needy children ...sanctuary plan unveiled for Knox Stables
Horse therapy helps needy children …sanctuary plan unveiled for Knox Stables

Among the collaborators that Hatcher has already contacted is Harry Swimmer of Charlotte, N. C., who developed the non-profit Misty Meadows Farm special needs sanctuary located just outside Charlotte. Misty Meadows features 80 acres of green pastures and manicured trails and the 85-year-old Swimmer has turned the big-time Saddlebred showing and breeding facility into a place of opportunity for children with special needs. Swimmer is expected to visit Knox State Park in the near future as Hatcher’s guest.

“What a wonderful vision for the Knox Farm Stables,” says Buffalo developer Carl Paladino when he heard of Hatcher’s dream for a sanctuary consistent with the North Carolina property. “It is a great idea for that beautiful and historic park in East Aurora, the former country estate of the Knox family, and a much better use than developing a for-profit operation. I support his vision 100 percent.”

While disappointed the state rejected her proposal, Julie Ciolek told the Buffalo News this week “that we will continue with a modified plan for the park to exclude any brewing and [remain] hopeful of executing the main part of our proposal to bring back Knox to a working farm.” She acknowledged that the brewery plan triggered community opposition but said in reality the brewery was less than 10 percent of the proposal.

The community group Concerned Citizens, organized in part because of the brewery proposal, had planned a meeting on Wednesday night (Sept. 14) to discuss the Ciolek bid but the planned forum was canceled after the state’s announcement on Monday rejecting the proposal.

Hatcher said he will work with various groups over the course of the next few months to formalize a proposal for the horse sanctuary vision for the Knox stables and will await word from the state on the next step in the process which would likely include a new RFP.

Meanwhile, for those of you who would like to see the lush property in and around Knox Farm State Park, you are invited to attend a polo match on Sunday (Sept. 18) at 2 p.m. at the Chur Equestrian Center (Knox Field) on Knox Road, featuring two polo teams from the Toronto area. The match will get underway at 3 p.m. and last about one hour and 15 minutes.

We’ll keep you posted on Hatcher’s efforts to put together the coalition to bring to life his dream of a horse therapy sanctuary at the Knox Farm Stables.

“There would be physical benefits, like improving posture and muscle tone, cognitive and sensory benefits that would promote greater awareness, and social benefits, including self-esteem and independence,” said Hatcher in discussing the horse sanctuary facility.

Hatcher said his plan would include the ability for companies and sponsors to adopt a horse or stable (32) at the facility to help what he calls the HIPPO (horse) therapy that he envisions, proven to have excellent outcomes for people suffering from mental challenges.

It is his hope that the state will allow what he calls “reasonable time” for proposals to be developed before moving forward with another RFP for the Knox Farm Stables.

We will keep you posted.