Gay City State Park is a state park in the town of Easton, Connecticut. The park’s 1,400 acres (567ha) include ponds for fishing and ice skating as well as forested hills with views of the Bristol Mountains to the west. It was once the estate of George Dudley Seymour, great-nephew to both King Charles II and Queen Elizabeth II, who summered here from 1660 until his death in 1677.
It originally comprised 400 acres, which grew to 537 acres following the purchase of 350 acres in 1955. The state added another 100 acres in 1961, bringing the total acreage to 640 acres. Additional purchases since have brought the park to its present size of 740 acres.It is managed primarily as a nature preserve with minimal development; only limited areas near the entrance have any significant infrastructure, such as roads or parking lots. There are no restroom facilities anywhere in the park. Visitors needing accommodations must rent a cabin or room in a nearby inn.
The park receives very little traffic compared to neighboring towns, and the parking lot often stays empty. According to figures released by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, 267,584 people visited Gay City State Park in 2016. This represents a 21% decrease in visitors from 2015 to 2016. While this number is lower than some previous years, it is higher than others. For example, according to the same DEEP statistics, 279,193 people visited Fairfield County Park District in 2016, a 9.4% decrease from 2015. And while the statewide figure for attendance at all CT state parks decreased slightly from 2015 to 2016, the opposite is true for Gay City. Attendance increased by 12%, from 157,173 in 2015 to 177,295 in 2016. This trend continues as of April 2022, with 378,739 people attending as of March 2021.
Sources indicate that fewer people are visiting the park, with possible explanations including greater awareness regarding COVID-19 precautions, public health concerns over swimming in unsupervised lakes, and growing environmental activism. Regardless of the cause, reduced visitation is leading to diminished resources allocated to the park. For instance, although the annual operating budget has been maintained at roughly $2 million, revenues have fallen short of expenditures, resulting in a net reduction in cash flow of nearly $500,000 for the 2019 fiscal year. Additionally, unlike in prior years, where money was generated through entrance fees and related activities, ticket sales alone cannot cover the cost of operations.
As a result, the state is considering various measures to address the financial shortfall, including seeking outside investment opportunities. Bobbecker attributes the decline in interest in investing in the park to heightened consumer protection movements across the country. He also notes that the state’s decision to move away from fossil fuel sources, combined with the oil production boom in North Dakota, has made it difficult for investors to justify the high risk associated with owning undeveloped energy assets. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful that the park will continue to attract tourists, and says he is working with several groups to expand marketing efforts. One plan under consideration calls for establishing a privately run resort within the park, similar to how Mohegan Sun operates within Foxwoods Casino & Resort. Another idea under study involves developing a cable TV network focused on broadcasting sports events held at the park.
Finally, there is talk of expanding the park northward, onto adjoining farmland owned by the family of former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman. Although these projects are in early stages of planning, they demonstrate the level of interest in promoting recreational usage of the park. When asked if she thought the park could become as popular as Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Linda Beers responded, “Anything is possible, but my hope and prayer is that it will be even more so”. On June 6, 2017, it was announced that Governor Dannel P. Malloy and First Lady Michelle Rhee signed an agreement creating a partnership to promote conservation and outdoor recreation, including in the state parks system. Through the “Partnership for Conservation” initiative, the pair agreed to work together to protect habitat for wildlife and plants, improve accessibility for people with disabilities, create jobs, and spur economic activity. Among the first actions taken by the newly formed partnership was a pledge to restore 200 acres of wetlands along the Quinnipiac River in cooperation with six nonprofit organizations.
During World War I, the property became the site of Camp Aurora, an American Expeditionary Forces training school that prepared soldiers for combat. After returning home, it remained unused until being purchased by the state in 1958 for use as a state park. In addition to its natural features, the park includes two historic buildings: the Great House and Millhouse, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its grounds contain many war monuments, including one dedicated to Lt. Harry Kels Swan, a member of the famed Black Patch Tobacco Wars who died in battle at age 24. A portion of the adjacent Peacock Point Reservation is included within the park.
On May 29, 2010, then Governor Dan Malloy proposed closing the park due to budget cuts, prompting hundreds of residents and concerned citizens to rally in protest. Budget adjustments were made throughout the 2011 fiscal year, allowing the parks department to maintain staffing levels and keep open most of the parks, including Gay City. However, there was still concern about the future of the park because of the loss of funding through the 2012 fiscal year. To prevent this from happening, local resident Bob Becker has offered to raise $2 million dollars over four years, half of which would be matched by the state, to establish a fund that will allow the park to remain open.
Although he had hoped to secure more than just the $1 million per year needed to operate the park, less than $500,000 per year will be enough to cover expenses. With plans to increase tourism after the reopening of the Taconic State Parkway in October 2020, the state hopes to generate additional revenue through parking fees and other means. Bobbecker said he is optimistic that he can find sufficient private funds to support maintenance costs of around $3 million annually. If not, the state will step up to ensure the park remains open. “It’s really important to me that people have access to these woods,” said Linda Beers, chairperson of the Parks and Forest Commission. “I think we owe it to the young men and women who fought in World War I and World War II to give them places to train for conflict.”
The park offers:
- pond fishing
- cross-country skiing