Catskill Center director sees regional economy at "tipping point"; organization will refocus efforts on eco-friendly development
By Julia Green
Few would argue that a perfect storm of external factors has developed to create a dire economic situation in the Catskills in recent years. Declining population, stringent watershed regulations, an increase in city-owned land, and a stagnant real estate market have left the region reeling and scrambling to find its footing on an ever-changing terrain.
Vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks have motivated local organizations to focus on economic growth and sustainability. Among those who now worry about the economic future of the Catskills is the Arkville-based Catskill Center for Conservation and Development (CCCD), an organization that for nearly all of its 40-year history has been better known for its conservation efforts than its development efforts.
Under the leadership of recently appointed executive director Alan White, The CCCD – known colloquially as The Catskill Center – is re-emphasizing its focus on the development part of its purpose.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to drive around and say our economy is really starting to limp along,” White said in an interview last week. “Protecting the environment is still a key part of our mission, but the main issue facing the Catskills isn’t environmental degradation, it’s economic progress.”
For a time, The Catskill Center was at the heart of the maelstrom debate surrounding the proposed Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park, which supporters say would add hundreds of full-time jobs to the Catskill economy in addition to attracting more tourism dollars. Until recently, The Catskill Center was on the other side of the fence with opponents who questioned the potential impact on rural communities and protected waterways and criticized its location within the Catskill Park and the watershed and along the borders of constitutionally protected wild forest preserve lands. The organization changed its tune somewhat, however, and signed off on the Agreement in Principle in 2007 – a move White said is in keeping with its refocus on the development aspect of its mission.
As part of its reorganization, The Catskill Center polled constituents and partners to learn what was expected of the group. As a result, White said, the board and staff are currently trying to move in a direction that allows them to focus on both sides of the center’s mission more effectively.
“In my crystal ball for the upstate economy, I think we’re in for some challenging years,” he said. “We’re at a tipping point, and we need to become more integrated, thoughtful and aggressive in our economic development.”
By “tipping point,” White said, he is referring to the critical mass that the region must maintain in order to continue to provide amenities like schools, hospitals and fire departments.
“When the fire whistle blows and no one shows up, you’ve gone too far,” he said. “We’ve got to have vibrant villages and hamlets, and you’ve got to have that critical mass, otherwise you go backward. We’ve got to move forward, not back.”
In White’s vision for the Catskills economy, recreational tourism would be a linchpin in the region’s success, focusing on the integration of natural resources with the tourism business as well as the evaluation of how to complete and utilize scenic byway designations. He pointed to the vast quantity of protected public land as a competitive advantage in the tourism market, but added that currently, the region does not do a good enough job linking the resource itself to tourism.
“Finding ways to highlight our cultural resources – we’ve got to figure out ways to promote them in the economy and make that a tourism draw,” he said.
“I think we need to walk the balance of maintaining our quality of life,” White added, pointing out that a key reason many choose to make their homes in the Catskills is directly related to that quality of life. “But, by the same token, people who choose to live here need to make a living. We need to find ways to encourage cooperation across communities, and we’ve got to start thinking as a region.”
According to its economic development vision, viability for villages and hamlets needs to be a key focus of the center’s efforts, and White said that the Catskill Center would be a supporter of the community revitalization effort spearheaded by the MARK Project and other like-minded organizations. Also important will be the promotion of cultural resources and opportunities and an improvement in the marketing of locally produced foods.
Anyone familiar with the workings of Wall Street knows the old financial industry expression: “Money goes where it’s treated best.” And, according to White, who has 28 years of professional experience in the Catskills region, a key factor in the region’s economic growth and success will be learning to treat capital well.
“The other element we’ve got to figure out how to do better with is accepting capital investment in recreational tourism,” he said. “If we think recreational tourism is our future, we have to find a way to say yes to capital investments, because if you don’t your economy goes backward. We can’t be against everything. As uncomfortable as it is for us as a community, we’ve got to find ways to have those discussions, work through the environmental impacts and find a way to say yes because it’s important to our economy.
“I think that’s one of the things we’ve done wrong in the past: we’ve created the impression that nothing’s welcome here, and we have to get past that.”
In response to those who consider The Catskill Center to be a destructive force to the economic growth of the region in light of its opposition to the Belleayre Resort, White used the expression “radical center” to describe what the center’s role should have been and should be in the future.
“When a project comes along and you raise concerns, the people who are really intensely concerned about the economy are angry at you for voicing concerns,” he said. “When you start to voice support, people who support the environment get mad. If we don’t do a good job communicating, we’re hated by all.”
The solution to the high-wire walk, White said, and the key to working successfully, is transparency.
“We’re looking for balance,” he said. “Not extreme position. We have to say, ‘here are the pros, here are the cons – make up your mind.’ That’s different from what we’ve done in the past. I don’t know if it will be less controversial, but it should be more thoughtful.”
White described the Catskill region as a place that values “home rule,” meaning that many times decisions are made at the level of the local municipalities, and that he views a role of The Catskill Center to be assisting those municipalities in making educated decisions.
“We’re developing a mentality as a society that we get to ‘no’ really quickly with a new idea, and a lot of it is a ‘NIMBY’ [not in my backyard] issue,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to see if there’s an economic upside to a new idea, to look at the environmental side, and see if there’s a way to get to a ‘yes.’”
He added that The Catskill Center is well positioned to be at the center of such discussions.
“We shouldn’t start with ‘let’s find a way to block it,’ but rather ‘let’s find a way to do it safely and in a way that makes economic sense.’”
And, to those who may think that conservation and development are two concepts in direct disagreement with each other, White said the solution is in the process.
“None of the development issues are binary equations,” he said. “Let’s identify concerns and figure out how to address them and work toward a conditional yes. It shouldn’t be ‘are you for or against?’ – if you address the cons, you get the pros. Unless you have the mentality of ‘unless it’s perfect we’re going to say no’ and what happens is, perfect becomes the enemy of the good.
“The commitment I’m going to make,” he added, “is that I’m not going to use scare tactics to make a point. Am I going to raise environmental concerns? Sure. But I’m going to do it in a way to open a door, not close one.”