by Terence P Ward
Main Street: in some ways, it’s more metaphor than actual pavement. Streets actually named “Main” are often not the most important drag in town anymore, with traffic and business being diverted onto newer, high-speed roads instead. Main Street, as a concept, is a geographic heart, where people shop, eat, run errands, trade news, and run into neighbors—it’s what turns towns into vibrant communities. The movement to bring back that sense of place has fully arrived in Ulster County, but much of the work to bring about changes is as fast as a speeding oak, and practically invisible to the people who live in the hamlets, villages, towns, and city where it’s happening.
According to Ajax Greene, founder of Re>Think Local, the movement towards revitalizing Main Street—placemaking, as he calls it—comes from the recognition that place matters. “Where you do development matters,” he said. “What works in Ames, Iowa is not the same as what makes sense in the Hudson Valley.” Much of the economic development efforts in this country are what Greene calls “business attraction,” attempts to woo a large employer to a new location with tax incentives, under the belief that enterprises can be installed like interchangeable parts. “That’s just stealing jobs from someone else,” he said, jobs which can be stolen again.
“IBM left and we’ve waited over 20 years for someone to save us,” he said. “I think there’s finally a recognition that’s not going to happen.” Instead, he’s seeing efforts to capitalize on what this region already has to offer and grow businesses here that are suited to those characteristics. He’s identified five very broad categories that he believes are strengths of the Hudson Valley: its robust food system, long history of the arts, stunning outdoor recreation, health and spiritual renewal movement, and a growing sector of small-scale technology companies. “It’s all happening under the radar, but it’s about to explode,” he said.
Metaphor or not, the fact that Main Street—no matter its actual name—is no longer the most important road in many communities is definitely one of the challenges to overcome. Accord, the hamlet where the town government of Rochester is located, was a bustling place when commerce ran through it, first on the D&H Canal, and later via railroad. Supervisor Carl Chipman, who grew up there, has watched part of that steady decline, which has only been accelerated by the increasing use of automobiles on Route 209, which bypasses the hamlet. “I remember when people met each other in town, not at the mall,” he said.
Rochester was a darling of the real estate market prior to the Great Recession, but the demand for weekend homes has never bounced back to where it was before the crash, Chipman said. One of his challenges as town supervisor is dealing with zombie homes, not yet owned by a foreclosing bank but not being maintained by the former residents either. Still, the fertile fields of the Rondout Valley continue to attract both tourists and weekenders interested in real food and robust recreation, such as the attractions of the Mohonk Preserve.
Chipman has said for years that he wants to “bring back Main Street” in Accord, and that he believes the best way to do that is to install water and sewer systems, neither of which exist in the town right now. “With half-acre zoning, there’s no room for leach fields and wells,” he said, particularly to suit any kind of larger business purpose. It’s an idea he’s been thinking about for a long time, and this year he’s committed to a tentative first step: commissioning a feasibility study, to find out if such a district could support itself, or if the fees would be too high. He is adamantly opposed to the idea that other town residents—those who would still rely on their own wells and septic systems—pay to support the infrastructure.
On the shores of the Hudson, the town of Lloyd has resolved some of the problems faced in Rochester, but others remain. Highland, the downtown hamlet at its heart, is completely circumvented by Route 9W since 1938. The relocation of the town’s post office to the state road some 20 years ago only made matters worse. While there is municipal water and sewer, making business development more plausible, it’s difficult to get signage approved to direct visitors downtown. There are more visitors recently, as the stupendously popular Walkway Over the Hudson has one foot in this community.
Lloyd has other systems in place, too, like a revolving loan fund to support small businesses, and an economic development commission to help with promotion and improvement. ”If we could divert 10 percent of 9W traffic, we would be bustling,” said commissioner Vivian Wadlin. Since there’s no easy answer to that problem, she said, they are focusing on another principle: “To make a town attractive to outsiders, it must be good for people who live here.”
So far, those efforts are paying off, as businesses are opening to capitalize on the walkway, and established ones are getting face-lifts. Charles Glasnier, who chairs the commission, calls that process gentrification, and he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. Having reached a tipping point, “Things are getting prettier by the day,” he said. That’s leading to other problems, such as real estate agents not having enough locations to show to buyers, because demand is now on the rise.
Town officials are also trying to make 9W part of the downtown, with zoning designed to bring buildings forward and create a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use area. Similar zoning is being passed in other communities, with the hopes that it will create the chemistry that is perhaps the most elusive part of the metaphorical Main Street.
Those efforts are part of why Ajax Greene thinks the region’s future is promising, because development is being applied to places, not created with a cookie-cutter approach. “I’m very bullish about the Hudson Valley,” he said.
Main Street photos by Brian Nieves.