“It seemed like social networking is what did it,” enthused former Onteora School Board president Maxanne Resnick, who sent out a daily email to about 100 people reminding them to vote. A number of people posted notices repeatedly on Facebook, and reminders appeared on the Woodland Valley Association blog.
According to Dave Pillard, proprietor of the Main Street boutique Tender Land Home, Vic Work of the Ulster County Democratic Committee also circulated an email notice. “It’s not just about Phoenicia,” commented Pillard. “It’s about the towns [that] people have to come through to get here.”
He is confident that the publication of a Budget Travel blurb will bring more business to the hamlet. “Someone was in the store just this past weekend who had read about it and had come to check us out,” he related. “I said, ‘You have to come in other seasons,’ and they said they’d definitely be back.”
Resnick does not own a business in town. Certainly she has an interest in the financial viability of the community she loves, but she says, “My idea was to have fun with it, and I think people did. What’s amazing is that we did as well as we did, with a population of only 388.”
Phoenicia, not technically a town, is a hamlet within the Town of Shandaken, which has a population of around 3000. Several of the top ten vote-getters have populations approaching the 10,000 limit, so the Phoenicia final tally of 15,451 votes looks like quite an accomplishment.
Artist Anique Taylor was reluctant to vote at first, fearing publicity for the town would make real estate values shoot up and put homes out of the reach of many locals. Some observers have attributed the spike in housing prices that occurred about eight years ago to a Phoenicia profile in the New York Times travel section. Resnick thinks the exodus after 9/11 was responsible.
Formerly a New York City dweller, Taylor says, “I was living in the East Village when it gentrified, and it became inaccessible for a lot of artists and other people who had been living there. I don’t want that to happen here. But then my friends started encouraging me to vote, saying that the contest would be good for the town.”
Users registered to the Budget Travel site were allowed to cast a vote as often as every five hours. Taylor would vote as soon as she got up in the morning, in order to fit in as many votes as possible each day. “It was great feeling that so many other people were voting along with me,” she says. “I really felt like I was part of the community, even though I was sitting alone in my house.”
In mid-January, Pillard, Resnick, and several other residents met to brainstorm ways of pumping up the vote. Flyers were posted around town, and signs popped up at stores, at the library, and on each table at Sweet Sue’s, urging people to vote. Sign-up sheets for Resnick’s email list were also posted, gleaning a whole pageful of names from patrons of The Nest Egg and a sprinkling from other shops.
After about a week, Resnick started adding little historical notes to her emails, including links to photos of local ice harvesting and the former Simpson’s ski area. She started an email conversation on the source of the name Phoenicia, eventually traced to the Phoenix Tannery, from the dawn of the town’s existence. “But there were six or seven tanneries here. Why did it get named after that particular one?” she now wonders.
Pillard reached farther afield, with weekly emails to a friend in China, a cousin in California, and other non-local acquaintances, who helped boost the vote tally. “I love it how this process connected us to people from so far away,” he enthuses.
For several weeks, Phoenicia jockeyed for position with such towns as Newton Borough, Pa., and Cedar Key, Fla., swapping back and forth between ninth and eighth place. By the beginning of the second week of February, the town had edged up to seventh place. On February 9, the tally was three votes shy of sixth. Tantalized, Resnick called Linda Sella, Phoenicia Elementary School principal, who described the contest to the students. Several kids voted, and soon Phoenicia surged into sixth place.
“The kids were so excited that they had helped move us up!” says Resnick. She saw their participation as a lesson in collective action and community spirit. Sella also made the contest into a math lesson, asking students to consider how a town of 388 could generate, at that point, almost 14,000 votes.
When the contest ended on February 11, Resnick was, ironically, in New York City without Internet access. “I don’t have one of those…”, she says miming a BlackBerry. So the victory email did not go out until February 12, but by then, the town was already a-buzz with Phoenicia’s sixth-place finish.
A CBS News segment on the contest is scheduled for mid-April. “I told [Shandaken supervisor] Rob Stanley he should get them to film it here,” muses Resnick. “We’re so picturesque!”
Taylor wonders how the group effort generated by the contest will produce further ripples in the community. “I’m fascinated with thoughts about how this could affect where we are a year from now.”++