The current issue of the normally-astute Hill Country Observer contains a sadly shallow article about an important topic, entitled “The Second Home Economy.”
As is too often the case when the press wades into such complex issues without really sounding their depths, we’re offered only a surface analysis of just two possible development directions for Columbia and Berkshire counties. Evidently, we have only two choices: either an artsy-fartsy tourism model, or a 1950s smokestack model.
Naturally there are many other choices; and in reality there is a much greater mix of populations and business in both places than the press would have us believe. Such Either/Or-ism leaves out many obvious examples of businesses which don’t fit either oversimplified model (e.g.: Etsy’s move of 50 jobs to Hudson). It also ignores the local history and national trends which led to current conditions in both counties.
The article first offers a sympathetic look at the lifestyle of a second-home couple, as well as thoughts from solid sources like Nat Karns of BRPC and Bert Freed of The Kinderhook Group. But then come the less-nuanced but more-predictable quotes from (a) someone who says their area has gotten too expensive and their kids have to move away, and (b) a habitual doomsayer who predicts his town’s whole economy is on the verge of collapse.
Two specific examples cited are Lee, Massachusetts, and Hudson, New York. But neither example lives up to the article’s reductive billing.
In both cases, the author and several commentators ignore the obvious and crucial fact that both places were essentially moribund 20 years ago. (Yes, I remember the closing of the five-and-dime in Lee, and the toy factory. Both have been gone a very long time now.) Culture and tourism and second home owners didn’t push people out of these places. Rather, small businesses and new taxpayers filled a gaping void left behind by heavy industry, which abandoned them. Without those willing to risk their modest savings on an abandoned town, where would either place be? Probably still dying a lingering demise. Yet the Either/Or-ists like to scapegoat the one, while waxing nostalgic about the other.
A kid with whom I went to gradeschool in the Berkshires returned to the area after a long absence, and created a successful brewpub in downtown Lee, catering to “locals” and weekenders alike. Lee, whose main street businesses mostly bled out in the ’80s and early ’90s, is on the upswing again. Likewise over in Great Barrington, two brothers with whom I rode the schoolbus started and built a small business over the past two decades into a very successful clothing and outdoor furniture business, frequented by a wide demographic of customers, largely thanks to their terrific customer service.
Yet The Observer seems to imply that all three of these kids would have been better off growing up to work somewhere like “The G.E.” in Pittsfield—where our forbears were expected to dip their arms up to the shoulders into vats of PCBs for much of their adult lives. Yes, General Electric once employed thousands in that city, where my father was born. The company also left behind vast quantities of pollution in both the Housatonic River as well as schoolyards and other private properties all over town. But ah, the glory days of good-ol’ American industry!
(It also should be said that the Berkshires are a far more racially diverse place today than when I was growing up in the ’70s. But you wouldn’t know that from the Observer piece.)
Ditto Hudson. While commenter Matt Frederick needlessly inflames the debate with a gross exaggeration that Hudson is dominated by stores only open two days a week, in fact the vast majority are 5, 6 or even 7-day operations. And overwhelmingly, local Hudson businesses are owned by full-time residents, with hardly a national chain store in sight besides the Subway attached to a laundromat. Such high levels of local ownership and downtown activity are all too rare in 21st Century America. Other main streets are mainly dead or dying, with business having moved to the nearest mall, into stores owned by megacorporations; yet we’re supposed to lament the rejuvenation of Lee and Hudson?
(Frederick elsewhere has spread the misinformation that it’s unusually difficult to operate a home-based business in Hudson due to zoning restrictions. I'm not the only one who’s asked him to specify which codes he’s talking about, and provided numerous counterexamples, to no avail. Both formal economic studies and on-the-ground evidence suggest the exact opposite: that Hudson has an unusually high concentration of self-employed people, cottage industries operating out of homes, and former residences converted to storefronts.)
Most of all, Hudson’s business mix has significantly diversified over the past decade. We can thank the pioneers in the culture and antiques trades for making that possible, since it was their businesses which patiently developed enough foot traffic and buzz to attract other investment, and create other centers of economic gravity. Much of the dining, hospitality, music, nightlife, housewares, coffeehouses, food markets and other types of business found here today were not present in the late ’90s. Arts and culture jumpstarted the process, and no one seems happier to see other types of stores and industries opening locally than those much-maligned antiquers themselves.
Meanwhile, quality of life in the Hudson area has helped retain and attract the very types of businesses those who favor the Either/Or, Us vs. Them script claim to support. A new light manufacturing business was found to fill the empty Kaz factory, nextdoor to Local Ocean, a fish farm; further down the road on Route 9, European giant L’Eurial is filling the former Entenmann's warehouse with a goat cheese operation, which over the long haul will aim to source its dairy locally. (Good time to go into the goat-raising business, as apparently there’s a real shortage.) Organic agriculture is thriving and rapidly-expanding, thanks both to local interest and the proximity to lucrative NYC markets.
And of course there are the countless other boats which have been raised by this tide, which has crept up from a low ebb in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Hardly anyone around here except lawyers earn more per hour than competent local plumbers, electricians, HVAC, and other contractors. The stabilization, renovation and expansion of the area’s amazing housing and building stock has been a prime driver of the local economy. Yet articles like that in the Observer leave the impression that few jobs have been created here except minimum-wage part-time dishwashing gigs.
And as for rising real estate prices: I’ve never heard of anyone, local or new, who was eager to sell their house for less than they paid for it. Are empty-nesters and retirees who’ve lived here all their lives, who now want to move into a more manageable house, and maybe spend the winter in Florida, supposed to take $100,000 less at closing in order just to satisfy some pundit’s pseudo-nativist ideology?
In any case, both rents and asking prices have moderated nicely after the national real estate bubble of the last decade burst. Where, precisely, can you rent a decent apartment cheaper than in Hudson, unless you’re willing (as I was in my youth) to live in an unsafe neighborhood, in an apartment lacking steady heat and hot water, and little of interest to do within walking distance? One might save $50 a month by relocating to the worst blocks of Rensselaer, pronounced "Rent-ler" by some denizens, but it’s unlikely anyone’s economic or personal prospects would be improved by such a move.
The false choices of Either/Or-ism not only present a distorted, defeatist picture, they also serve to pit residents against each other. Those residents pigeonholded as “weekenders” and “lifelong residents” have a lot more in common than those making snap judgements based on a windshield view of Main Street. Is the economy perfect in either the Berkshires, or Columbia County? Hardly. But I’d like to know where economic Nirvana has been achieved and sustained in any part of America today. Overall, the prospects in both counties seem a whole lot better than average.
For those who wish to turn back the clock and live in a dead, dangerous town dominated by polluting industry, there will always be Gary. For those who prefer a main street full of Ye Olde Saltwater Taffy emporia and doily-draped inns, there’s no shortage of tourist traps all along the New England coast. The rest of us will continue to live somewhere in between—or preferably along some long detour off that straight-line highway, which exists mainly in the mindscape of the media.