Regionalism as opportunity

Regionalism went a little bit mainstream in New York two years ago, when governor Andrew Cuomo’s state-of-the-state message unveiled a new approach to state funding for economic development. In this year’s state-of-the-state speech, the governor proposed promoting training and innovation within colleges and encouraging collaboration among academics, private firms and investors. Cuomo announced a series of marketing plans to encourage more regional thinking, including the Taste-NY initiative to promote New York products and a $5-million advertising competition for the best regional plan. He also proposed three casinos for upstate New York and a whitewater rafting competition for the Adirondacks.

What is a region, anyway? What is our region? We asked Jonathan Drapkin, president and CEO of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. We talked with Alan White, executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. We contacted Melissa Everett, executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, a non-profit with the goal of working collaboratively to “speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy.” We solicited the views of Rik Flynn, co-founder and outgoing president of UlsterCorps, a non-profit organization that seeks to coordinate communication among social-service organizations within Ulster County. And finally we interviewed Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson.

Boundaries of a region

Drapkin heads a collaborative effort begun in 1965 by the educational and business communities to explore sustainable growth for the Hudson Valley.

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“How you define a region depends on the issue,” Drapkin said. “It isn’t always neatly defined. Government boundaries, like geographic boundaries, can sometimes be a hindrance. If you’re talking about agriculture, the Hudson Valley goes all the way past Albany to Washington County. But if you’re talking about economic development or tourism, the Hudson Valley is more centrally located. I define a region as a group of communities that share a collective vision, a commonality of interest on an issue.”

Drapkin admitted that the Hudson Valley has its peculiar challenges as it tries to fit itself together as a region. He lives in Sullivan County, considered the Hudson Valley for economic development purposes but the Catskills for New York State tourism.

“The Tappan Zee Bridge is a good example of an asset which needs to be considered regionally,” Drapkin said. “It’s thought of as the connector for Rockland and Westchester counties. But it impacts the Hudson Valley, New York City, parts of New Jersey and other areas as well. It affects the movement of commuters and goods between all those areas. So any discussion of the future of the bridge needed to consider those areas as well.”

Drapkin thought that the regional approach to economic development has, overall, been working. “I think it’s helping us finally understand that not every issue can be handled in our own back yard.”

Drapkin pointed out that a lot of us don’t stay in our back yard. We’re part of many communities. “On any given day 35 per cent of people in the Mid-Hudson Valley get up and go to work outside their home county. And in Putnam County, that jumps to 70 percent. So we’re all impacting each other’s goods and services.”

That understanding, he said, is creating a new attitude, one that he said he has not seen before. “For the first time in six years, I see counties looking to make sure other members benefit from something which benefits them,” Drapkin said. “And a minority of them are saying up front that they see there’s a benefit to them, even when a project goes elsewhere. There’s a growing sense that even if we don’t get it, it could still be good for us.”

Catskill in the background

Alan White, of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, was fresh from reviewing the latest gubernatorial message. He saw some general initiatives he liked, like raising the minimum wage (“Who can live on $7.25 an hour?”) and the emphasis on equality for women. But he didn’t detect much that specifically benefited the Catskills.

“We’re not well represented on the regional economic development councils,” White observed. “We are, in fact, in the back yard of four councils. The Mid-Hudson region is focused on the Hudson Valley, and there’s not much representation from the mountains.” White called the situation an artifact of artificial boundaries.

“The biggest problem for the Catskills as a region is there is no common acceptance of what that means, geographically and economically. Is it the Catskill Park and New York City watershed? Is it the legislative definition, which includes six and a half counties? So the state economic development councils were drawn by economic development regions, but they didn’t see the Catskills as a distinct region with very specific issues. We’re in four councils and we’re the lowest priority on all four.”

With a million acres, a forest preserve, a ski resort, watershed lands and villages that are struggling economically, White said, the Catskills have more in common with the Adirondacks than with the other regional councils with which they’re linked. “We took some members of our board to visit the Adirondack North Country Association this past fall,” he said. “They’ve got one self-contained economic development council, and they’ve fared fairly well.”

White thought the Catskills could do a better job of self-promotion. “Right now, Delaware promotes itself as the Great Western Catskills. Greene County is promoting itself as the Great Northern Catskill Mountains. We’re splintering the region. We should be looking at Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Wilds tourism promotion.”

The Catskills have to work on submitting more applications for state funding, White said, and it needs to get more representation. “We need to get more people on board.”

Negotiations and patience

The breadth of the region has been a challenge for Sustainable Hudson Valley. Executive director Melissa Everett said the wide geographical and economic diversity of the Hudson Valley, an area that, for her organization, consists of the area south of Albany and north of New York City, has always presented difficulties.

“Because of that diversity, we have never been able to accomplish as much as we wished, but we have gotten a variety of people with a deep understanding of their local needs, people who are locally grounded but regionally savvy. Working regionally requires a level of back and forth — negotiation and plenty of patience. You can’t impose a regional outlook. Instead, you have to draw out the opportunities, the themes all communities have in common.”

She pointed to two initiatives as examples. She said Local First, an economic development concept of interest to all communities, has found broad support. So has the effort to create climate change awareness, building a Climate Action Plan and the political will to act on it.

“We aren’t doing this alone,” Everett said. “There have been a couple of years to education and inspiration on Local First, with a small business network, a strategy for northern Dutchess, a regional rollout of Michael Shuman’s Going Local, showings of Independent America. Now there is a new organization, Re-Think Local, approaching the same agenda with a purely business membership base.”

Everett sees leadership from Albany as adding momentum. “What the governor has done with his emphasis on regionalism is to establish a necessity for rapid consensus. County planning partnerships were being passed over for federal funds because there was no effective regional governing plan. Now we’re getting our collective arms around a set of common principles and metrics on which we can agree.”

Everett likens the working method to an artist’s initial sketch, a quick outline of the issue so everyone can agree on its basic composition. “Interest in regionalism is heating up with the realization that with the large and diverse number of organizations in the Hudson Valley it’s difficult to agree on one voice for the valley,” she said.

UlsterCorps offers a central location to learn about volunteer opportunities. It has coordinated transporting crops after local harvests to local soup kitchens and food pantries. Its annual Service Summit invites local leaders and organizations to gather and share information and opportunities for collaboration.

“In spite of this particular time of economic and social hardship, there remains an abundance of resources in the region to address the county’s needs,” Rik Flynn said. “We all have to find new and creative ways to employ these resources. There’s the inclination, I think, to sometimes feel paralyzed: where to begin or how to prioritize? The answer, I think, is to assess what we can do realistically in our own region and get to it. Smaller, defined objectives can lead to demonstrable results. Those can then be replicated and built upon.”

Dividing the environmental labor

Ned Sullivan said he meets regularly with the leaders of Riverkeeper and Clearwater to discuss how they can work together to meet challenges facing the Hudson River. There’s a division of labor. “Riverkeeper takes the lead in enforcing laws which protect the river,” he explained. “Clearwater focuses on educating the next generation of the river’s stewards. And Scenic Hudson is preserving the land that matters most, the land which protects the river. We come together when we’re addressing major threats to the river, threats like pollution, or discharges from power plants.”

Sullivan, like Drapkin a member of the governor’s Mid-Hudson economic development advisory council, thinks the initiative is on the right track. “They’ve done a fabulous job of identifying the region’s assets,” he said. “A national survey showed that the number-one asset of this region is its natural beauty. The regional economic development council has done a terrific job of integrating business needs and values while advancing tourism and appropriate waterfront development. They recognize that the parks and the natural beauty here are assets that attract business.”

Sullivan detects that the area’s agriculture is enjoying “an explosion of interest and enthusiasm.” Scenic Hudson has permanently protected 67 working farms in five counties and plans to do more.

But the Scenic Hudson executive has also seeing an improved recognition in New York City of the relationship between the city and the farms just up the river. “There’s this incredible breadbasket right outside New York City,” he said, “and I’m seeing a lot of people from the city now taking an interest.”

Regionalism, though an imperfect system, is getting local leaders talking to each other in new ways. And that’s something.

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