A welcome center and some 1,500 acres of wildlife and military artifacts will soon open to the public

After years of fundraising, political wrangling and other hurdles, the former Seneca Army Depot is on track to open for tours. A welcome center is nearly built, a tour operations manager has been hired, and buses stand ready — almost — to take visitors beginning next month.

“We are definitely excited with the mortar and brick being built, and it’s really cool getting our act together for tourists year-round,” said Dennis Money, president of Seneca White Deer Inc. The nonprofit has been fundraising for years and promoting preservation of white deer at the site — and the potential for the former depot to be a year-round, ecotourism attraction.

Through an agreement with the depot’s new owner, Earl Martin, visitors will be able to experience the wildlife and military mysteries of the former World War II Army weapons depot. Wildlife includes the rare, white deer whose numbers had dwindled in recent years but now have a leg up due to recent developments.

Money routinely monitors deer population with trail cameras, along with an occasional aerial-view count. Two years ago, only about 75 white deer were seen on the 7,000 acres. But new fawns as well as natural brown ones were sighted this spring. Martin, who is expanding his ironworks business on part of the depot, created a company called Deer Haven Park last summer to improve the habitat on a section set aside for wildlife. Money said that effort is bearing fruit: Martin repaired fencing and planted food crops to boost the deer population.

While hunting white deer won’t be allowed, at least for several years, Money said an agreement is being worked out to permit hunting of brown deer to balance the populations — and encourage more of what are known as the Ghost Deer.

Along with the wildlife on what will initially be half of 3,000 acres of the former depot for tourism, visitors will see abandoned bomb shelters, concrete “igloo” bunkers and artifacts from the depot’s history as a U.S. Army weapons storage and disposal site from 1941 until the 1990s. Money said there will also be old ammunition boxes, empty shell casings and related items. While some pieces will be remakes of originals, people will learn all about the history from a military police impersonator.

The Army Corps of Engineers is still cleaning up sections of the former depot. That includes 1,500 acres of the 3,000 acres for tourism in the town of Varick, Seneca County. This latest project to open the depot to the public follows bus tours Seneca White Deer offered, though intermittently, between 2006 and 2012. Money said with a fall opening this time and plans to stay open year-round, it will capture visitors for fall foliage season that is big in the region. Come winter, it will be even easier to see the white deer when the leaves are off the trees, so Money expects the winter season to eventually be the best of the year.

The new welcome center will be named after John and Josephine Ingle, owners of Heron Hill Winery. The Ingles “have been been significant funders, without them we would not be here,” Money said, adding that “a real potpourri of donations” have come in from hundreds of people that made it all possible.

Going forward, the tourist site will remain under the auspices of the nonprofit Seneca White Deer and will rely on donations.

With expenses of rent, insurance, utilities, staffing, maintenance and merchandise purchases and cost of buses, the operation will need somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 a month. The operation will rely on volunteers and initially hire about 10 employees, said Money. Jim Petropoulos of Geneva, on board as Tourism Operations Manager, is an Army and Navy veteran, Internet savvy and experienced in computer graphics.

“We have a lot of planned points of interest,” said Petropoulos, who is in the process of hiring tour guides and drivers. He called the plan for the former depot “a great idea.” Originally a city resident, from Queens, Petropoulos was said he was eager to see white deer and then, on a recent test drive of a planned 90-minute tour, saw seven.

When the visitors come, “they will see deer,” he said.

Money said there will be an admission fee, still being decided, probably ranging from $20 to $30 for a 90-minute tour, with special rates such as for large groups and children. He said the goal is to make it affordable and also, eventually self-sustaining.

Once word gets out, Money expects visitors coming from all over the world.

“Because there is nothing like it,” he said.

 

If you go

WHAT: Learn about re-opening of former Seneca Army Depot

WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 28, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

WHERE: The Artists’ Loft at the Cheshire Union, 4244 Route 21 S., Canandaigua

DETAILS: Learn the latest on plans to open the former depot for tours. Seneca White Deer Inc. President Dennis Money will talk and show his wildlife photos. The Artists’ Loft at the Cheshire Union will showcase Money’s photos for a month