Imagine an Old Sturbridge Village-like complex complete with a farrier/blacksmith shop, general store with a potbelly stove, farm animals, and several horse barn structures for riding lessons and performances … right here in Newtown.
George Mason is trying to make what he believes will be a $30–$50 million project a reality. He has been doing legwork for months with the purpose of setting up a living tribute to those lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings this past December.
Mr Mason, who resides in Fayette, Maine, is not a developer or builder. He is not loaded with the kind of cash it takes to do this, and he says he is not trying to make it happen for any personal gain. He is a 67-year-old retired car technician/former classic car repair business owner with a grand plan to do something nice for the community, and seems to have the initiative to generate interest from those he needs to come together to get it done. He has reached out to major (as well as smaller) companies and charitable organizations, he has been in contact with barn/equestrian building facilities, and he has pieced together part of a board of directors. Now he is looking for support (although not financial) from Newtown to get the project under way this summer.
Mr Mason, who has been around horses and farm animals on and off since he was a toddler, was heartbroken — again — when he heard the news of the tragedy. His horse facility plan was already in the works just because he wanted to make it happen — somewhere. A town with open land in Massachusetts, Lee, was among those Mr Mason was looking into. About a year ago, he had a smaller scale, $3–$5 million, project on his mind.
Then the lives of 26 children and educators in Sandy Hook were taken, including that of horse lover Jessica Rekos, bringing the vision of “Sandy Hook Stables” to the forefront of Mr Mason’s mind.
“We started talking about how this would benefit everybody, especially when western Connecticut is horse country — and it just grew from there,” he said.
Living With Loss
Mr Mason tragically lost a son and has empathy for parents who have lost their children. “The scars are still there. It still hurts. You live with it; you have to learn to live with it,” he said.
He has since lost a spouse and has only one cousin who lives near his Fayette home. Three of his four daughters reside in western Connecticut, as do most of his 12 grandchildren. “I love my grandchildren,” Mr Mason says.
He says he would move to Connecticut in a heartbeat if the Newtown community is receptive to his project. He insists it is more than a concept since he does, after all, have interested investors on board. Mason will not drop names of companies he has been contacting to solicit donations, but insists he has them interested. Mr Mason has reached out to businesses near and far, and says he will be able to get the entire project backed by donations small and large.
The 67-year-old says he plans to have the board run the horse facility and notes that the town would not have to take over operations or expenses over time. “We’re not looking for any [financial] support of the town,” said Mason, adding that he also is not seeking private donations.
What is more, Mr Mason hopes to generate money beyond what would cover expenses, that could be donated to area animal shelters and other charities.
“If it becomes what I hope it does, it will be between $30 and $50 million,” Mr Mason said. “There are a lot of companies out there with big bucks — they don’t know what to do with it.”
One nonprofit organization that wants to work with Sandy Hook Stables, Mr Mason said, is Cherubs For Children, an organization with a mission of hope and healing, to create a community of support and love for those affected by tragic deaths.
Mr Mason likens his proposed venue to a horse community Disney World of sorts and does not want it to be looked on as an unrealistic dream. He pointed out that when Walt Disney had the idea to create his theme park, “Everybody thought he was crazy.
“This will be to the horse world like what Walt Disney World was to a family theme park,” Mr Mason said. “It’s something kids and families can enjoy.”
Sandy Hook Stables would include a range of horses from miniatures to drafts, and everything in between, he said. An equine center would house a pair of exhibition rings for dressage, jumping, and other horse shows. There will be year-round arena and an open sides arena. The plan will also include a vet clinic building and a building for feed/grain and equine supplies.
There would be sleigh and carriage rides on the alcohol-free grounds. Horse lessons would be offered, and there would be live entertainment. Mr Mason envisions there being a couple of cows, goats, and chickens to create country farm feeling.
Mr Mason said an education incentive program for Newtown children under 15 years of age could provide free membership if guidelines of the program are followed.
“Why not have something they can benefit from now,” Mr Mason says of how this could be enjoyed by families of victims in the short team as well as serve the entire community for years to come.
He has visions of a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant on site. “I want to put a great big potbelly stove right in the middle of a general store,” he added.
He has been in touch with Barn Pros Equestrian Facilities, a Monroe, Wash.-based company that has a structure in each of the 50 states, as well as in Canada and overseas, according to Garrett Stephens, product specialist for Barn Pros. “It’s definitely a very, very cool opportunity,” said Mr Stephens, adding that among the 150 or so barns they ship out every year, only a handful are for everyday use projects such as Mr Mason’s.
Creating A Local Feel
Mr Mason says in addition to the five existing board members, including himself, he would like to add five Newtown residents to the board. “We don’t want the town to feel like we’re strangers coming in out of nowhere,” he said.
Mr Mason lived in Connecticut for a couple of decades — in Manchester and Willington. He has family from Windsor Locks, Wethersfield, and East Hartford.
Among the properties Mr Mason is exploring is a 102-acre piece of land at 10 Hawleyville Road. Joe Wrinn, agent for the property, on the market for $12.5 million, said he has had talks with Mr Mason but no offers and that there is other interest in the property.
Mr Wrinn said the location — being that it is very close to Route 84 — would have minimal impact on the town from a traffic standpoint.
“If his concept comes together as he hopes, then it will become a spectacular success for Newtown,” Mr Wrinn said.
Mr Mason has reached out to Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, but this project is being treated like all attempts to honor victims in the aftermath of 12/14, with all proposals and ideas being archived.
“We’re not ready yet. We’re still struggling with the school decision,” Mrs Llodra said earlier this spring.
Mr Mason is hopeful that the town will be ready to entertain his idea sooner than later. He would like to have it under way in the coming weeks. If Newtown is not receptive, he will bring the project elsewhere, Mr Mason said.
“We firmly believe that Sandy Hook Stables would thrive regardless of its location, but we would prefer that it be located in the Newtown area in order to benefit the Newtown/Sandy Hook community,” Mr Mason said.
“I appreciate his efforts,” said Mrs Llodra, adding that she asks Mr Mason and all others coming forward with ideas to be patient.
“I don’t want to get too deep into this without meeting with town officials in person,” said Mr Mason, adding that he is also looking for approval from families of victims. He will not reach out to them but welcomes them to contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I have put a great amount of effort into researching this project and I am very confident that it will do well,” Mr Mason said. “I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to this.”