Creating a new direction for Sullivan County
By ROBERT DADRAS
Sullivan County has always been a beautiful place to live and work, as well as to visit. The problem recently has been that the economy has been less than wonderful. This has caused businesses to come and go, resulting in, at times, anxiety amongst the residents. This is not an uncommon thing for areas like ours, which are largely dependent on tourism and agriculture for their survival.
It was 10 years ago this month that I was one of a small group that were hired by the, then, fairly new Sullivan County Legislatures, to create an Economic Development Strategy for the county. This was a bold and courageous move for Sullivan County government. It was also the first time something like this had been tried. This bold move paid off. The result was, for about six years, a new kind of modern renaissance throughout the county.
In the last four years the momentum has slowed and, with about three quarter of the original 42 proposals/programs completed, Sullivan County yearns for a revised direction.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Tourism. Often Sullivan County residents talk about how the tourism business is dead, or nearly dead. It is true that Sullivan Countys tourism business is nothing like what it used to be, when, at one time, there were over 1,000 resort businesses (a figure that even today boggles the mind). It will never be exactly what it was, but it can be something significant again. The remaining large resorts can be rejuvenated into a new kind of modern resort, with a fresh new tourism themesomething possibly resembling the Mohonk Mountain House, in Ulster County, or the very popular new Wolf Lodge in the Poconos, or possibly even a new conference center hotel. The area is just as beautiful as it was 120 years ago, when tourism was first growing significantly. People from the metropolitan areas still want an easy, reasonable, no-hassle place for their families to visit. There is also a need for smaller hotels, inns and B&Bs, like the still-popular, family-run Hills Country Inn in Callicoon Center. The county also needs to expand its winter economy to make all businesses more viable, on a year-round basis.
2. Agriculture. Often Sullivan County residents talk about how the family-farm agriculture business is dead, or nearly dead. It is true that Sullivan Countys agriculture business is nothing like what it used to be. (Can you see a pattern here?) It will never be exactly what it was, but it too, can be significant again. The remaining family-run farms can be rejuvenated into a new kind of agriculture, with a fresh new theme. Ag-tourism, now very popular in Vermont, might be one new direction. In addition, farmers can continue to grow produce locally for local customers, as well as for an increasing number of new, progressively-thinking supermarkets and restaurants in nearby metropolitan areas.
3. Main streets. The countys main streets can play an essential role in both rejuvenated tourism and agriculture economies. For tourism, our local main streets can continue to be a place for interesting niche retail, similar to areas in the Berkshires and throughout Vermont. They can continue to be a place for a growing cultural community, creating major regional cultural centers. This was the economic strategy for Liberty, 15 years ago, where places like the Liberty Museum and Arts Center now play an important role. The very successful area farmers markets have all located on the main streets around Sullivan County, providing benefits for the farmers and the main streets in general. Also, the main streets can continue to grow as incubators for small- and medium-sized businesses looking for a more urban atmosphere to nurture their creativity. The historic architecture, in and around the main streets, is also playing an important role in attracting new residents and visitors to the area.
In general, Sullivan County needs to practice smart, and progressive, economic development, based on national success stories, that benefit both existing local year-round residents, existing weekenders, and the new generation of visitors coming to this wonderful place.
(Robert Dadras is an architect and maineet development consultant, living and working in Liberty, NY.)