Found in a private Hudson collection, this fold-out poster appears to date from the late 1960s or early 1970s. Inviting visitors to “Come to Columbia County” (exclamation point — !), the poster divides the local terrain into six regions: The Hunt Country, The Highlands, The Lakelands, South Fruitlands, Centerland, and North Fruitlands.
I have never heard a single resident use any of these terms, except maybe an occasional real estate listing which references “Hunt Country” to give a property a more aristrocratic air. When walking out the door for a drive to Clermont, one doesn’t usually call out: See ’ya later, honey—I’m off to the South Fruitlands!
Every decade or so, a new effort is made to rebrand or “market” Columbia County to the outside world. In the City of Hudson, such efforts occur more on a five-year plan. And though these typically occur with much anticipatory excitement among those businesses which depend on visitors, they proceed with little if any real analysis of the previous campaign, or the current target audience.
Vivid but worthless anecdotal reports about visitor needs and complaints drive group conversation at first, as it is more fun and inflammatory to talk about the most extreme examples than to do in-depth demographic studies or figure out how to really match messages with audiences.
Over time, though, both the more extreme examples and the more creative edges get shorn off, resulting in a watered-down end product which neither offends nor appeals to much of anyone. Drab, or corny, or excessivly boosterish, the end product arrives almost as an afterthought in train stations, B&B lobbies, coffeeshop displays, and the like. Those involved feel a sense of accomplishment, and backslap each other endlessly on what a great job everyone did.
But it is not at all clear that these brochures, posters, maps, etc. have much impact. Visitors and house-hunters often pick tourist guides up without ever really reading them, due to a combination of crammed 7-point type and lack of graphic and editorial punch. When visiting a place, one feels reassured having these flyers in one's pocket, but as a practical matter it is happenstance, or word of mouth, or a personal recommendation, that really matter. Having a list of a zillion options can feel like having no options, if one does not know where to begin. Asking a local proprietor of an impressive store where you should have dinner is worth 1,000 listings or Yelp reviews.
So what does drive traffic to places like Columbia County? Having grown up in the neighboring Berkshires, and now in my 15th year of living on this side of the State line, I’d postulate the following:
(1) Friends with country places. Many people’s first experience of a provincial region like the Hudson Valley comes from spending a weekend with friends who have already taken the plunge—or hearing from those friends about how great it is Upstate. Some of these become homeowners themselves, or just repeat visitors to either their friends’ homes or area lodging. (As a corollary to this rule, some become familiar with the Hudson Valley’s appeal from buying produce from its growers in urban greenmarkets.)
Patti Smith at Basilica, May 2003
(2) Must-see events. Others discover a place because of some event they simply must attend. When I organized a benefit concert with Patti Smith in 2003 at the Basilica, with the help of Rudy Wurlitzer and Lynn Davis, it was astonishing to see what a loyal following Smith had all over the world... The concert hauled in reservations from all over the U.S. and Europe. A small number of events of this type already rope in visitors here, such as the NADA art fair, also held at the Basilica. However, it is not at all clear that the region’s ever-proliferating festivals and parades and walks necessarily have the same effect of expanding the market, as they often draw the bulk of their audiences from a static, existing pool of local residents and others already familiar with the area.
(3) Good times, bad times. Places like Columbia County which are situated within striking distance of a major city have a peculiar relationship to the fortunes of that city. In good times, people in the metro area have more cash, and are more likely to spend it on houses and vacations. In bad times, a certain percentage of the metropolis’ residents move (often cashing out of their real estate) and take their remaining income and savings to the provinces. In the run-up to 9/11, for example, the County was on a steady upswing; the terrorist attack of that day caused many to think that business would die on places like Warren Street. But the opposite happened, as many City residents sought out a place to Escape From New York either temporarily or permanently.
(4) Sustained media coverage. Whenever a feature article appears in a well-read, high-circulation publication, local businesses tend to see an immediate jump in visitors in the following weeks. Even better than a single prominent article is a sustained spate of publicity over a period of 6-12 months, such as that which occurred in 1998-1999. It’s not any one article that really puts a place on the map, but a series of good press. The third time someone reads about a destination, that’s when s/he says: Huh, I keep hearing about this place... Maybe it’s time to check it out.
(5) Infrastructure. Most crucially, the location, accessibility, and fundamental appeal of a place is what brings visitors, far more than marketing or branding. To convince someone to commit to a trip takes more than a single image or catchphrase. Columbia County’s accessibility via the Thruway, Amtrak, Taconic Parkway, and to a much lesser extent via the Albany airport, coupled with its remarkable terrain and building stock, are what keep people coming, not throwaway brochures or posters, or billboards, or Greyhound Getaway Specials.
Two out of five of the above are within a place’s control, while three of them really are not controllable. Residents and businesspoeple can encourage more must-see events, but these tend to happen more because of one couple’s connections than any group effort, as in the case of the Patti Smith concert.
It’s far more crucial to just get people here than to spend a lot of effort creating long inventories of every single thing they might possibly do once they arrive. People like to explore places for themselves, to follow their noses and make their own adventure, maybe at most relying on a tip from a shopkeeper or waiter or passer-by. This place is not so big and complicated that people won’t find good stuff on their own, especially with everyone carrying around handheld devices with more connectivity and power than a supercomputer from 20 years ago.
As far as courting more media, to my knowledge none of the many County and City business groups and development agencies has a complete file of all the remarkable publicity the area has received over the past 20 years, which in itself would be a strong marketing tool—because half the media does indeed repeat and copy itself routinely, liking nothing better than a proven story. The other half wants novel angles and stories, so effort there might best be devoted to developing a dozen “pitches” to reporters and editors—unusual new takes on a territory whose basic contours others have already covered to death.
Speaking of death and marketing, it’s always worth giving Bill Hicks the last word on those topics whenever they come up:
An article this morning by Tom Casey in The Register-Star reports that the City of Hudson is seeking funding “to create a marketing and development plan for several vacant buildings, including the L&B Furniture and McGuire properties, and to create a detailed plan to connect the separated portions of the waterfront from the North Bay to the South Bay.”
In point of fact, the L&B Furniture site (actually renamed LB Furniture before it closed) is hardly a “vacant building.”
The vast space houses plenty of renters, including the highly successful CNC fabrication business Digifab, a metal shop, a recycler, music practice spaces, and more. Indeed, The Register-Star itself published an article by Lindsay Suchow in November 2010 about the revival of the building, entitled “New life at old furniture warehouse.”
(Note: The above correction was submitted as an online comment to the paper’s website early this morning, but it has suppressed it. Apparently the Hudson “community paper” feels free to make obvious mistakes, but does not like them being pointed out.)
The focus of the article is to bemoan the seeming lack of interest in a Hudson grant application, reporting that “on Tuesday, there were no members of the public at the public hearing, which the group stressed needs to change to help take the ideas and proposals to improving and developing Hudson’s waterfront to the next step.” Casey quotes a development official as claiming that
“All the ideas you (the public) provided during the LWRP are now bearing some fruit... So much of that comes out of that public comment, you gave us the foundation, and now it’s step two.”
The official may be making that statement naïvely, or in hopes of changing the dynamic, but its whitewashing sentiment comes across as an affront to those who actually were around for the degraded Waterfront process.
The LWRP was a travesty of public input. One would be hard-pressed to make up a more textbook example of how to undermine public faith in public policy.
The sustained participation and comments of thousands of residents over many years—in public workshops, surveys, hearings, postcards, petitions, emails, letters and more—was cast aside for the South Bay in favor of the demands of a Swiss-owned multinational polluter and a Connecticut-based construction company. The former has racked up millions internationally in fines for environmental and anti-trust violations, and the latter is known for its role in the huge Rowland corruption scandal, and for an explosion at one of its projects that killed six workers.
The architects of the highly unpopular and unresponsive Waterfront plan were former Mayor Rick Scalera, Linda Mussmann of TSL and her real estate attorney, Cheryl Roberts, now a candidate for State Assembly, with the spine-free connivance of Council President Don Moore. Roberts erased records of two well-attended workshops and a 300-person survey from the LWRP narrative, because that input ran counter to her agenda—while incorporting virtually all of the demands of lawyers from Holcim and O&G. (This is what the leaders of the Columbia County Democratic Committee, such as Cyndy Hall and Victor Mendolia, shamelessly trumpet as Roberts’ “environmental sensitivity.”)
And Moore, having tried but failed to block public access to a key draft of the plan, refused to allow any of the 80 people who attended the final meeting about the plan to speak before the Council voted on it.
Meanwhile on the North Bay side, a huge outpouring of support for the Furgary Boat Club was again spurned by Roberts, Moore and the current mayor, Bill Hallenbeck. The Furgarians were evicted at gunpoint by a SWAT team, no less. A widespread local belief is that the eviction of Furgary after 100 years of peaceful stewardship of the North Bay was driven by a plan advanced by the Chatham-based Columbia Land Conservancy—which would be the beneficiary of some of this new Hudson grant funding, , according the The Register’s article.
No wonder then that no one showed up for these hearings. The public has gotten the firm message that their input does not matter, and would be a waste of a citizen’s breath. The current backers of these grant proposals no doubt are operating in better faith than their predecessors. But mix these recent and strong impressions of official disdain with a dearth of publicity about the weekday meeting (announced via obscure public notice), and you have a perfect recipe for the public to stay away, even though the topic is one of keen importance to the future of Hudson.
The public is interested—it just isn’t convinced that the City will listen. It’s up to its leaders to convince people otherwise, by making a serious outreach to groups and residents who have been burned multiple times before.
Thursday’s 7:30 pm meeting of the Ghent Town Board has been moved down the road about 4/10ths of a mile to the V.F.W. hall, located off Route 66 behind The Columbia Paper’s office. The change was announced Wednesday evening on the Town’s website; evidently a crowd must be expected.
On Thursday at 7:30 pm, the Ghent Town Board will hold its regularly-scheduled meeting. Many expect there will be people present to ask the Town’s leaders for their thoughts on the towering August 1st inferno at TCI. (So far, there has been no public statement on the issue from the Town apart from a well-deserved thank you to first responders.)
Much has been learned about TCI of NY and its operations since the fire. But each piece of new information has itself raised many new doubts and concerns. Below are just 20 of the more obvious and urgent questions* that remain to be answered:
Which operations at the TCI site actually had Town of Ghent permits—if any?
Why would a business which reportedly has millions in annual revenues pay less than $4,200 in total County, Fire and Town taxes?
What has been the cost to the Town, County, State and Feds from this fire, and which of those costs will be reimbursed?
Why did State reps from DEC decline to take samples of the oily, black clumps which fell all over nearby residents’ houses and properties, some of whom have had to replace their pools?
When was explosive sodium introduced into the facility on Falls Industrial Park Road—and why was 880 gallons of it being stored near nitrogen and flammable materials?
Since sodium is used to dechlorinate and detoxify PCBs, were PCBs being treated onsite—and if so, was there a laboratory set up there for this purpose?
Why were PCB transformers found onsite with levels in the 1,000-2,000 parts per million (ppm) range, when the company had promised to only accept drained transformers, and has stated that it only handled concentrations less than 50 ppm?
Does the Laskin family still have a financial stake in the company, and what do the present owners have to say for themselves?
How many people were really working at TCI, how many are still on payroll, and why haven’t we heard from them?
Given that Newburgh’s firefighters destroyed their equipment after exposure to a fire there, and condemned TCI’s previous facility, and that Athens’ firefighters rejected the company entirely, is it fair to continue exposing first responders to such extraordinary risks?
Considering TCI’s history in Newburgh and Athens, and the death of a young worker in its Ghent facility, and the company’s protracted
litigation with neighbors and the Town of Ghent over a late ’80s
incinerator proposal, and its abortive attempt to add household hazardous
waste in the ’90s, and their apparent expansion of activities, and the two recent
fires, is it unreasonable to view this company as a “nuisance industry,” as prohibited by the Ghent Zoning Code?
What is the status of the investigation into the fire’s cause, given that this was the second fire at TCI this year—and is this part of a pattern of devastating structure fires in the 9H corridor, including at least one that has been deemed arson?
Why did the Town Board miss the portion of the public meeting at the West Ghent Fire Station which did not overlap with their own (much briefer) meeting earlier that evening—and why did TCI and all but one County Supervisor skip it, too?
What if anything was done in the days after the Wednesday night fire to prevent runoff from the site (knowing that a large storm was coming on Sunday), and what is being discharged now into the nearby Widow’s Creek, with the State’s apparent blessing??
Why hasn’t the hotspot of PCBs found on the TCI site resulted in further testing in the surrounding area, why wasn’t the more expensive and accurage form of testing done, as recommended by experts such as Dr. David Carpenter and Dr. Mitchell Gaynor—and why didn’t any officials insist on performing the testing for highly-carcinogenic dioxin, which was originally promised?
If residents downwind have developed health problems (or develop them later) which might be related to this fire, do they have any recourse besides paying for their own investigations and health care?
The full set of reports on TCI by this site can be read (in reverse chronological order) by clicking here.
* ENDNOTE: A request was sent to the company for an interview a month ago, but no response has been received to date. If TCI (or anyone else) wishes to respond to any of these questions, they are invited to do so in the comments or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org