When Chester architect William Cowan looks out over the abandoned cabins and empty Olympic-sized swimming pool at the former Sunrise Resort, he sees buildings out of code, tangled overhead electrical wires and architecture that went out of style in the 1950s.
But he also sees a possible future: a small farming and forest community where visitors would learn about sustainable technologies.
Knox, vice president of International Aquatic Design Inc., the company that designed the water park at Lake Compounce, thinks it would be the perfect opportunity for the state to get into the water park business.
Cowan and Knox are the only developers to respond to the state Department of Environmental Protection's request for expressions of interest in Sunrise State Park, a former resort playground. The state's goal is to find an individual or organization that would develop and manage the park, creating a "destination location," as the resort did for more than 93 years.
"There is potential to once again turn Sunrise State Park into a first-class resort that attracts visitors from all over the Northeast," DEP Commissioner Amey Marrella said. "Sunrise Resort is part of Connecticut's heritage and the state wants to partner with a developer who shares our vision."
Cowan, an Illinois native who has designed buildings in his home state and in Connecticut, believes that much of the old resort - except for the historically and architecturally significant buildings - should be demolished. A community would be created and geared toward educating the public about the principles of sustainability - using resources that not only meet present human needs while preserving the environment, but also the needs of future generations.
The plan would include creating ecosystems consisting of a village, farm and forest. Fields, where organic fruits and vegetables would be grown, could be created from the barren land. A village area consisting of restaurants, shops, living spaces or dormitories could be built to support the community. A variety of cultural, educational and recreational facilities would support individuals, summer campers, tourists, and school and corporate groups that would visit.
Cowan, who designed and built his own "off-the-electricity-grid" home in Chester, said the environment is "too often taken for granted," leading to an "indifference to and overuse of valuable resources."
"Our culture cannot survive long without a change in perception of these values," he said. "Sustainability is a means to this watershed change. To provide a practical example, one that engages the public in an entertaining way, is a path that will lead to structural and cultural changes ... keep growing without wearing out your resources."
Cowan, who said he walks the Sunrise property often with his dog, said the dozens of abandoned buildings, from cabins to motels to dining halls, need to be secured to protect them from further deterioration and vandalism. He also said all the "resort stuff" should be auctioned.
"I would walk through here saying, 'This ought to be done' and 'That ought to be done,' " he said. "I don't think anything here has historical value. How economically viable is the 1950s style? Maybe as a museum? Great. As a movie set? But after the first slasher flick, can you rent it out again?"
Knox and his International Aquatic Design have developed some of the most popular water parks on the East Coast, from New Hampshire to Florida. His team created the water park at Lake Compounce and worked with California, Indiana and Florida and dozens of municipalities to create parks on state-owned and municipally owned land. Over the past 40 years, the company has designed and constructed more than 3,000 pools and water-related facilities throughout the country.
Knox's plan for Sunrise is to assist the state in developing a natural-themed children's water park tailored to families with children 12 years and younger. The plan is to blend the park naturally into the existing landscape and provide not only aquatic activities, but also an educational experience of how water works in the environment. Rides would be "phased in" over the years.
"We would not be out there to make it Disneyland," Knox said. "We would make it Connecticut. When you create a water park, you start small and create a small revenue stream and then you reinvest. If you try and make a $20 million water park all at once, you are going to lose your shirt."
"It is like the movie business," he added. "You need to give them something new all the time and keep bringing your repeat clientele back."
Knox points to Splish Splash Water Park on Long Island as a facility that is set into the natural woodland setting and heavily landscaped. "Sunrise could be a replica of it," he said.
He said his company would work with the state on historical preservation of the existing Sunrise buildings and structures and blend them with the existing topography. He said it is key for the state to build the water park and then rent out the operation.
"This type of park has a long history of success in good times and in tough economic times," he said. Although he didn't put a price tag on the water park, he said the project would be "relatively inexpensive to develop."
The DEP will conduct a more formal request for proposals later this summer.
"These are two interesting proposals that will help broaden our thinking of the possibilities for the park," Deputy DEP Commissioner Susan Frechette said. "We think there is tremendous potential here."