Like his mother before him, my uncle Charles Barnett spent every summer of his childhood in Rosendale. The town he remembers from the 1940s was a busy place, full of small businesses and local color. You can read about it in the Century House’s summer 2000 issue.
My uncle also wrote “Summer Song: Growing Up Along the Rondout,” which the librarian at the Rosendale town library says is a huge hit with the locals. It’s part of the local history collection.
My cousins and I remember a sleepier Rosendale in the 1960s. Mr. and Mrs. Gilmartin dispensed calamine lotion (and ice cream sodas) from behind the counter of what is now The Big Cheese. The Rosendale Theatre was open, but there were a lot of empty storefronts.
Since then, the economic engine has had occasional sparks. But there’s been a lot of stalling. Now, 40 years later, Rosendale’s engines seem to be quietly rumbling. Locals expect things are about to kick into high gear as the trestle bridge they now smilingly refer to as “The Walkway Across the Rondout” opens in June, connecting rail-trails from the Wallkill Valley and Kingston.
“That trestle is going to be a big plus for the town,” said Town Supervisor Jeanne Walsh. “Eventually we’ll have connectivity from the trestle to Main Street. With the theatre, the shops, The 1850 House and restaurants, there’s a nice little atmosphere.”
Walsh, supervisor since January 2012, said she and her husband started buying and fixing up Main Street buildings in the late 1990s. “My husband felt it was important to improve the quality of life in town for our children, and it was important to give back the community,” she said. “Once we started fixing buildings, it spread. And as those buildings on Main Street began to look better, it drew new businesses.”
Staying power, however, was still not a strong suit for Rosendale businesses. “We got interested in Main Street starting in ‘97 when we started a theater in the old grange building,” remembered Ann Citron. She and her husband, former supervisor Patrick McDonough, had to close the theater after one season, but she said that they proved to themselves that the community would support an arts center, despite the building’s issues (it finally burned in 2004),
“Then we opened a bookstore in ‘99. We had to close it in 2004,” Citron said. “That happened a lot. A new business would open, there would be interest, but just not enough business to keep it going.”
Citron said she became convinced that the economy of the town needed to rely on a strong arts center. She is now managing director of the Rosendale Theatre Collective. That experience, she said, is proving to her that she was right. “The theater brings in bigger crowds, but the restaurants and shops around it keep them here. It’s really a symbiotic relationship.”
Amy Stroope is the innkeeper at the 1850 House, an upscale inn and pub that opened last March. “It was the right time and the right place,” she said. “Tourism was definitely affected by the recession, but this summer is looking fantastic. We’re promoting not only Rosendale, the shops and the theater, but the surrounding area for the arts and recreation.”
We’re drawing our clientele from Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s just a five to 10 minute drive to anything you might want and there are great dining options right here in town — the Red Brick Tavern, the Bywater Bistro, the Rosendale Café. It’s a fun place!”
Walkability is one of the attributes that freelance writer Sari Botton said made Rosendale attractive for articles in The New York Times and a feature in The New Yorker.
“A city audience wants to know about a community that has so much to offer and is walkable and affordable. And not just visitors, but people who are considering moving here.”
Botton and her husband are both transplants from downstate and she’s written about not only the town and its economic development, but the theater’s competition for a Pepsi Challenge prize (it won).
“I think that kind of press has real value for the town,” she said. “I’ve had so many people tell me that they visited after reading about Rosendale in the Times.”
If you’re wondering how that coup was achieved, Botton warned there’s a difference between cheerleading and news. “This town has an interesting news angle.”
What if your town or your business doesn’t have a resident news writer connected to the downstate press? Botton said the best way to get that kind of attention is do targeted press releases combined with a good website and a strong social media presence.
“Editors will look at a Facebook page to see how many followers you have — if you only have a handful, they know there’s not much of an audience for an article about you.”
The rail trail isn’t the only change on the horizon for Rosendale. Tim Allred, project manager for the Williams Lake Project, said he expects final word “very soon” on whether the plan for a resort, spa and private home community has successfully passed the state’s environmental review. It’s been seven years since Allred first arrived in Rosendale and the project, originally called the Hudson River Valley Resort, was announced. He’s now on the local Chamber of Commerce and is busy preparing to open the portion of the rail trail that runs through the Williams Lake property to the public.
“(County Executive) Mike Hein’s plan to connect all the rail trails from the Ashokan to the Walkway Over the Hudson is a really exciting vision,” Allred said. “I love big picture thinking. But folks need to be patient. The opening of the trestle isn’t a ‘gimme.’ It’s a positive, but it might take some time for Main Street to really notice its impact.”
Allred said he’s hoping his own project can begin demo and site prep this calendar year. The Williams Lake Project is one that deeply divided the town, but Walsh, who is “100 percent for the project,” said she thinks the town’s starting to be won over.
“Save the Lakes is still around, but I wouldn’t have gotten elected if people didn’t support the project. People shouldn’t be fearful,” she added. “They’ve been here seven years, they’ve made a commitment to the community. I think they’ve proven to be good neighbors.”
Allred said his developers are still impressed with the area, and with Rosendale’s local resources. But he said he’s watching the year-old Associated Supermarket in the Fann’s Plaza, waiting to see if the vitality that’s keeping restaurants, shops, a bakery, cafes, a new pet food store and a theatre going on Main Street has started to extend out to the rest of town.
“I know there’s been a cycle of boom and bust in this town,” he said, “but it does feel like it’s on the rise right now. It’s certainly important to have a vibrant, dense business corridor, but businesses need a reason to locate on Route 32. The bike store has relocated out there now. The supermarket is a good test case.”
Attorney Sara McGinty, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, agrees that it’s important for the town to try to spruce up the business district along the road that connects them to both Kingston and New Paltz. She said she believes the vacant plaza south of the bridge has been purchased, and a local landscaper is a adding a nursery on Route 32. Long awaited indoor tennis courts are also expected near the town’s border with Esopus, well past the town’s currently shut-down pool, which is the focus of a number of fundraising efforts.
“I understand the supermarket is changing suppliers, so the shelves are pretty bare right now as they transition from the old to the new,” McGinty said. “Having a supermarket is so important for the town. I’m told the change will mean a better selection and lower prices. Now if we could just get a pharmacy. But frankly, Fann’s Plaza needs to look a little better. And I know the days of the neighborhood pharmacy are probably over.”