By: Nancy Proyect, President, Orange County Citizens Foundation/ Board member of Re>Think Local
Lucinda Poindexter, Executive Director, Re>Think Local
There is a notion in our community that local economic development may be stalled because the Hudson Valley has fewer “shovel-ready” sites available for building new offices, factories, warehouses, hotels and shopping malls. The good news is that this shortage is a result of great success – the many sites that were available a few years ago have mostly been taken. But one may question, why must economic development rely so heavily on filling up open space and erecting new buildings? Might there not be another way?
While we understand the need for some businesses to build new, we’d like to see significant attention be paid to developing “shovel-ready” sites in our struggling cities, villages, and towns. The Newburgh Land Bank can be applauded for doing this with dozens of buildings in areas of the City, Middletown has initiated several over the past few years, and Kingston is on the move. But there could be more of an effort throughout our economic development initiatives.
Many modern businesses do not need much space. Here in the digital age, a desk and an internet connection are all that is needed for advertising agencies, publishers, architects, engineers, planners, attorneys, investment advisers, accountants, authors, website designers, software coders, producers of film, video or music, fashion or industrial designers, researchers, analysts, producers of apps, toys and games, and more. These are the businesses of the future. They require a relatively high degree of education, training, or skill, and consequently are relatively high paying. They are mostly non-polluting and do not require much water or energy. We already have many of these businesses. How are we working to grow more?
Yes, it can be more difficult and expensive to redevelop an existing space, but the return to our communities will be worth it in the long run. Many of our Hudson Valley cities and villages could use the boost. An influx of workers would create demand for local restaurants and other amenities. Some workers would choose to move to the area, so they could walk to work, creating demand for entertainment, dry cleaners, groceries, and hardware stores. In short, we could grow vibrant neighborhoods, which have become an endangered species in this region.
Adaptive reuse, retrofitting and converting many underused buildings, for both business and residential uses, would create work for the construction industry no less than new construction.
Having more of these kinds of businesses would create demand for more qualified workers, which would be a task for our local schools and colleges. Our children could find good careers here at home, rather than having to move to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Boulder, etc. These thriving cities aren’t thriving because they keep finding new shovel-ready sites. They thrive because they provide critical mass in an environment that is welcoming to the culture of start-ups, growth, and experimentation.
Our local governments and economic development professionals could help bring about these results by shifting focus from shovel-ready sites. Zoning changes might be needed. Marketing and incentives might be modified to attract and grow different kinds of businesses. There are examples from other regions that we can learn from.
We have one of these great learning opportunities coming up on March 15. Michelle Long, founding Executive Director of BALLE, the leading organization promoting localism, will be visiting and speaking in Kingston. Visit rethinklocal.org to learn more. And, again in June, we’ll have another opportunity to learn more about downtown renaissances and Main Street revitalizations at the Orange County Citizens Foundation’s 8th annual Placemaking Conference. Visit www.occitizensfoundation.org for more information.