Dennis Doyle, director of the county planning board, introduced the organizational meeting, explaining that the Main Street Project began about four years ago, with partial funding from the Catskill Watershed Corporation. The project is designed to help Ulster County communities, as well as the Route 28 corridor, find ways to attract business and compete successfully to improve local economic conditions. The process has already begun in Pine Hill and in Shokan, where committees have been formed to propose and implement town projects. Doyle said the county can help communities find funding to get their projects going, although once underway, local entities are expected to keep going under their own steam.
The board’s deputy director, Jennifer Schwartz Berky, then took over, commenting that the attendance was the largest she’s seen yet at a Main Street meeting. In addition to many hamlet business owners, attendees included representatives of the Phoenicia Library, Phoenicia Rotary, Shandaken Theatrical Society, Shandaken town board and planning board, and other local organizations.
The process begins, she explained, with assessing the community’s internal strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats. One of the goals is for participants to agree on an image for the community that can be used to “sell” it to potential customers.
“We need a Main Street business plan,” Berky stated. “We’re competing as a community with things that are far away — a mall or big box store. We have to think of how we can do it as a group.”
Doyle received mostly blank looks when he asked whether local businesspeople had made any efforts to link up through Facebook pages or had embarked on joint advertising ventures. Later, however, Michael Mills of the Shandaken Theatrical Society said his group had raised $18,000 through a combination of direct appeals and a Facebook page, and he invited other businesses to link to the page, a possible source of hits for their sites.
Consultant Peter Fairweather presented data that he said could help Main Street businesses make decisions through identification of markets within 15, 30, and 70 minutes of the hamlet. Data provided by Esri, a California research and mapping firm, identifies four consumer profiles that fit the Phoenicia market, such as “rural resort dwellers” and “cozy and comfortable.”
“They prefer modest living, have simple tastes, are interested in home remodeling and improvement, cooking and canning, and they participate in community activities,” said Fairweather. “This is a picture of a customer. But is this accurate? We can provide data that helps with the planning process, but you bring a richer information source, because you live and work in the hamlet every day.”
He pointed out that nearby communities may have different customer profiles. Boiceville, for example, has many “prosperous empty nesters.”
“They put a high value on physical and mental well-being, on their investments,” he said. “Each geography has a different set of opportunities, and there are 150 different categories.”
Tommy Rinaldi of Flying Cat Music pointed out that knowing the profiles of tourists coming to the community might also useful, and Fairweather said that information could be provided. He said the data show that “‘cultural heritage’ tourists do most of their vacation planning once they get there. They show up and look for things to do. To take advantage of that, you must have an information center or train customer service people to answer questions, have an events calendar by the cash register.”
Berky said the planners would be conducting local business surveys to supplement the Esri data.
Brian Powers, former Phoenicia Times publisher, asked the presenters to define the county’s role in the revitalization process. Doyle replied, “We think our role is technical assistance, bringing data to the table that you haven’t seen before. We’ll give you a commonality for discussion.” He said the data could help businesses obtain loans, and the county could open discussions with the Ulster County Development Corporation on funding such efforts as infrastructure upgrades that might support town business.
Powers and David Pillard of Tender Land Home revisited the 1999 visioning process, which resulted in the construction of the Tanbark Trail on Tremper Mountain, planting of flowers at the entrance to town, and purchase of tubs for flowers on Main Street, later successfully maintained by Phriends of Phoenicia. A more ambitious project, creation of a Riverwalk along the Esopus, never obtained adequate funding, although a design was made. A town logo contest resulted in a design that was adopted, but the printing of banners to display it was never funded. However, Bob Kalb of the Rotary said later that his organization is currently engaged in printing town banners.
Tom Fraser of the Phoenicia Belle asked whether it might be time to revive the Phoenicia Business Association, which was responsible for erecting the decorative sign at the town entrance but declined around the same time as the visioning project lost steam. Michael Kroger of Mama’s Boy Market said he had recently put out feelers with the goal of starting such a group, and Berky said she would disseminate his information to those who signed up with the Main Street project.
One participant expressed worry about the strife than can arise in such community decision-making processes. “Strife is not bad,” responded Fairweather. “It means people are invested. It can be messy, but it’s good for progress.”
Berky said the county will work with the Phoenicia group for a year. She is seeking a core group of eight people to put in about five hours a week. Much of the work can be done over the Internet, using online learning software supplied by SUNY Ulster to provide information and facilitate online discussion. She encouraged anyone interested in participating, either as a core member or at a more casual level, to sign up at ulstermainstreets.ning.com. She will put information on the website for participants to download and read before the next meeting, which will take place in early January. Future meetings will occur about every six weeks. ++