The former Dowling College campus in Oakdale has a new owner, but the Beijing-based company has no immediate plans for the campus, the property’s manager told Newsday.

The 25-acre property — including the century-old Idle Hour estate built by railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt — came under new ownership on Dec. 17, when China Orient Asset Management Co. Ltd. paid nearly $42 million to buy majority control of the parent company of Delaware-based Mercury International. Mercury bought the property for $26.1 million at a 2017 bankruptcy auction.

Don Cook, the property’s caretaker and director of operations for Mercury, said the campus and mansion are not for sale, adding that the new owners are undecided on what they will do with the property.

"I really don’t know what the best solution would be for the property," Cook said Jan. 31, in his first public comments in four years about the property. "Whatever happens, I’m sure some people in the community will not be happy. … If, at the end of the day, it becomes a development, they will not be happy to see a development."

Dowling closed in 2016 after declaring bankruptcy when it could not pay off more than $50 million in debt from failed expansion projects, such as an unsuccessful aviation school in Shirley. The private school had seen its enrollment plummet from 4,500 in 2009 to fewer than 2,500 in 2015.

The property has been marred by vandalism in recent years while thieves repeatedly broke into the mansion, prompting criticisms of Mercury’s stewardship of the site from Islip Town officials and Oakdale residents.

The tree-lined campus on the banks of the Connetquot River — often used by local residents as an unofficial park for jogging and kayaking — was silent on a recent sunny, windy winter afternoon. A damaged lamppost leaned over a walkway near the iron entrance gate at the intersection of Idle Hour Boulevard and Chateau Drive.

A damaged lamppost leans over a walkway on a recent...

A damaged lamppost leans over a walkway on a recent winter afternoon at the former campus. Credit: Newsday/Carl MacGowan

Cook said foreign ownership has made it difficult for him to receive adequate funds to maintain the property and repair damage caused by vandals and bad weather.

"It’s very slow to get anything from China," Cook said, adding that cash to pay expenses "all eventually comes."

Cook, a Huntington-area resident, said he was appointed by a federal bankruptcy court to serve as manager of the site before it was sold to Mercury. He later was named Mercury’s director of operations and has remained with the company through several changes in ownership, he said.

Cook said he will continue in his role as property manager. He said his duties include meeting with Islip officials, responding to problems at the site, and paying bills and property taxes, adding he visits the campus nearly every day.

The town last year boarded up some sections of the mansion following a rash of break-ins and thefts. Islip billed Mercury about $34,000 for the security measure, town spokeswoman Caroline Smith said.

Vanderbilt Estate at the former campus of Dowling College in Oakdale...

Vanderbilt Estate at the former campus of Dowling College in Oakdale in October 2020. Credit: Morgan Campbell

In 2018, Cook said Mercury planned to build an educational center at the site, but the company never filed an application with Islip, Smith said.

Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. announced in 2020 that the county would seize the property for nonpayment of back taxes, but withdrew the threat when Mercury resumed making payments.

Kennedy told Newsday last month that tax payments on the site were up to date after Mercury paid $4.2 million in back taxes in installments over the past 18 months.

Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter, in a statement emailed to Newsday, expressed hope the new ownership would "ultimately restore Dowling back to the jewel it once was."

"The town shares the same interests as its residents, which are to ensure that the property is safe, secure and in compliance" with town codes, Carpenter wrote.

Oakdale residents visited the former campus in August 2021 after recent acts...

Oakdale residents visited the former campus in August 2021 after recent acts of vandalism.   Credit: James Carbone

Cook said he has been forced by the site’s owners to work on a limited budget, hampering efforts to make repairs, provide security and pay property taxes. He said China Orient is the third ownership entity he has reported to in the past four years.

"How do you want to maintain the property? To what degree? That’s the question," Cook said. "They [the owners] want to limit their expenses. They want to do enough to maintain the asset value."

Suffolk County police said last year it would step up patrols around the campus, which is not enclosed.

One incident of vandalism last summer caused about $50,000 worth of damage, members of the Oakdale Historical Society said. No arrests were made in that incident, officials said.

The Idle Hour mansion in Oakdale has been boarded up after...

The Idle Hour mansion in Oakdale has been boarded up after complaints about vandalism and trespassing in the historic building. Credit: Veronique Louis

Mike Burke, an Oakdale resident who is part of a neighborhood watch group that has worked with Suffolk police to patrol the property, said Cook has worked well with residents.

"He’s somebody that we text with, [such as] when we caught kids in the student center," Burke said. "He came down in the middle of the night."

The property was purchased in 2017 by Mercury at an auction after another company, Princeton Education Center, won a previous auction that year but failed to complete its purchase of the site.

Ownership of Mercury has been transferred at least three times in the past five years to financial or mortgage holding companies, including some registered in the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands and linked to firms in Hong Kong and China, according to Stock Exchange of Hong Kong records.

Mercury’s parent company, Mercury Union Ltd., based in the British Virgin Islands, previously had been a subsidiary of NCF Capital Ltd., an investment holding company registered in the Cayman Islands. NCF Capital was decertified by the Cayman Islands last April for being an inactive business.

China Orient's website states the company, formed in 1999, is owned by the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China and has stakes in insurance, banking and securities. The site adds the firm specializes in managing "distressed assets" and "safeguarding state-owned assets, resolving financial risks and advancing the reform of state-owned enterprises."

Attempts to reach China Orient officials were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, residents still wait to see what will happen to the site. Burke said it’s frustrating to watch the campus languish despite past promises of new development.

"We’re more optimistic," he said, "but we kept getting told this over and over and over again."

With Arielle Martinez and Laura Mann

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