COOKSBURG, JEFFERSON COUNTY---The state decided to buy and renovate the Cook Homestead in Cook Forest, something some businesses and residents aren’t happy about, because after the building is fixed-up with their tax dollars, it will be leased to a private company or individual to run a business and reap the benefits.
The Cook Homestead is the original home of the Cook family, built in 1870, and park officials said they didn’t want the historic landmark to go to the wayside.
“My fear was that it would eventually deteriorate and the Kocher’s would have to live there and run the business,” said Cook Forest Operations Manager Marcia Gordon, “It wasn’t even legal to have it as a livable residence, so it would probably be boarded up and just left to stand, which is really what the fear was.”
The Kocher family owned the building and ran it as a bed and breakfast for 13 years, but when they decided to retire, the state bought the property.
“In state parks, you might have heard that the budget’s not so good, and some people have said, ‘Why would you buy a building like this,’” Gordon said, “And the answer is, we’re trying to diversify in the state parks.”
Some local business owners aren’t so sure that their tax dollars should be used to renovate a building that will benefit a private business.
“Most of the business here are privately owned, and it’s our own money that is in them, like I’ve been here 22 years,” said Rusty Snyder, owner of Double Diamond Deer Ranch and President of Northwest Pennsylvania Great Outdoors, “And we just find it kind of offensive that the state can come in and refurbish a business, and then a private individual can run it.”
Snyder said the business that leases the Cook Homestead will also have other unfair advantages, like tax breaks and reduced advertising costs, because they will be in a state-owned property.
“Most all the private cabin owners feel that whole idea was just unfair to them because they’re still going to be paying their taxes, and they’re still going to have to be paying for their advertising and all the work that they need to do to stay in business, and this facility will not have to do any of that,” Snyder said.
But other area business owners said whatever is good for Cook Forest is good for them.
Mike McMurray owns four businesses including a canoe livery, a gift shop, a café, and cabin rentals, and said, “When [visitors] come here they don’t just go to the bed and breakfast. They go to the canoes, the horses, the go-karts, and they’re brought in by the state by their advertising, so it’s a benefit to us all. We’re all in a cooperative advertising to begin with, and now this is going to bring in more people to the area, which is what we want.”
McMurray said state parks were hit hard by the economy, and that all the small businesses in Cook Forest, from gift shops to motel rooms, rely on each other, so a bed and breakfast will fit right in.
“Nationwide park attendance has been on the decrease, so anything we can do here at Cook Forest to increase the number of people attending and enjoying the park is a definite benefit to the total surrounding area,” he said, “I’m totally for what they’re doing. I think it’s going to help the area.”
Park officials say they are currently taking bids on the bed and breakfast business. They expect it to open some time next year.
They say they are spending tax dollars on the project, but they feel that, between the money they’ll get from leasing the building and having a new feature to draw visitors to the park, that it’s money well-spent on a structure that would other wise become an eyesore in the heart of Cook Forest.