Ride the Catskills

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From the inside of the large tent next to the Catskills Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper last Friday afternoon, it sounded at first like the noise of a single distant power mower was cutting the late-October air. For the next couple of minutes the sound grew closer and louder until it could be clearly identified as coming from a bunch of Harleys coming up Route 28. Governor Andrew Cuomo, riding on one of them, was coming to town.

The governor and his 40-motorcycle entourage pulled up the long driveway to the interpretive center, parked in front of the tent and turned off their motors. Nine police officers forming a row leading to the tent stood at attention; another six stood in front of the interpretive center. As the bikers clambered off their machines, the governor’s un-uniformed staff herded those of the hundred or so people standing at the mouth of the tent back to their seats. The people inside the tent had already eaten. Most of the bikers headed straight to the food line and helped themselves to the pulled pork and chicken salad, which was of course locally sourced. The four who sat at my table said they were from Sullivan County.

Under a cloudless blue sky on this beautiful sunny fall day, the governor and his biker gang had traveled from Minnewaska State Park to the Catskills. Across Route 28 and the Esopus Creek, the row of hills of the magnificent state-owned several-thousand-acre Centennial Acquisition was ablaze with autumn colors. To the west loomed Mount Tremper, similarly garbed.

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It had been such a magnificent morning, said Cuomo in his brief address. “God gave us the right day,” he said. People who live in the area full-time take the spectacular natural beauty for granted.

“There is nothing we don’t have in New York State,” exulted Cuomo. “We just have to tell the story.” That’s where investing $60 million on the revival of the I Love New York campaign came in; five million will go to advertising the Catskills.

Tourism is a $62-billion industry in New York State, “a big, big business, one of the largest growth industries.” It was important to expose more of the 50 million visitors who came to New York City last year to the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. New York City is great, said Cuomo at both Minnewaska and Mount Tremper, but there’s a whole state to experience. “We want to get those 50 million visitors and make sure they see the rest of the state, the Catskills.”

Cuomo has planned a tourism summit to make linkages and make relationships with local tour operators part of the package. The day’s “Ride the Catskills” was part of the larger picture.

The governor, who agrees with the characterization of himself as intensely competitive, intends to participate next summer in a “Catskills Challenge” on the model of the “Adirondack Challenge,” which has provided greater visibility for that region (as well as publicity for himself). He jokingly said he had won every event in which he had participated in the Adirondacks (as decided by state police officers, who were of course, the governor noted with a straight face, impartial judges). Expect paddling, hiking, mountain biking and fly fishing.

 

It’s not just upstate tourism that state leaders are trying to increase. The upstate economy has had increasing problems for the past several decades, to put it mildly, and the state’s political class of both parties hasn’t been able to reverse the trend. In the almost five years Andrew Cuomo has been governor, almost all the new jobs in the state have been created in the New York City region.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has devised a structure that pits the state’s regions against each other in a competition for state resources for economic development. “Those working at the local level know their area economies best,” Cuomo has said.

With legislative approval, this year he upped the ante, adding a billion-and-a-half-dollar (over five years) Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI) to his $750-million-a-year annual Regional Economic Development Committee (REDC) program. Seven of the state’s ten economic development regions (New York City, Long Island and Buffalo are excluded) are eligible for URI money, with the three winners in that competition will be allocated $100 million each year for five years.

The presentations of the updated regional five-year strategic plans were made last week in Albany. The Cuomo administration retains for the state the controlling voice in deciding which projects get funded, but this year for the first time four state legislators were added to the review process.

State senator Jim Seward, who represents Shandaken, Hardenburgh, Denning and Rochester, was appointed to the review panel. The other three, like Seward veteran state legislators, were Denny Farrell, a longtime Manhattan Democratic assemblymen, Long Island Republican state senator Kenneth LaValle, and Binghamton Democratic assemblywoman Donna Lupardo.

If the pattern of previous years is followed, the awards will be announced around December 12. Seward expects the project allocations for the REDC money and regions awarded the URI finding will be announced at the same time.

 

Like the others, Seward listened carefully to last week’s presentations in Albany. What did he think of the mid-Hudson region’s strategic plan?

Seward’s a cautious man, prudent and rarely impolitic in his judgments. He emphasized that it was still early in the process. It was premature to jump to conclusions. He didn’t want to speculate. But he termed the mid-Hudson REDC proposals “very solid.” Certain themes came through.

He said that the theme of the mid-Hudson region’s tourism development being food- and agriculture-related — becoming a sort of “Napa East.” He liked the region being branded as an ideal place to live, work and play. He favored the idea of spending resources to make the region’s cultural and natural resources more attractive and more accessible. The “very practical approach” to linking B&Bs and other short-term housing to their customers both in a community sense and through the Internet appealed to him.

Proximity to New York City is an advantage for more than tourism, of course. Development of its own “culture of innovation” was significant for the mid-Hudson region.

Attacking poverty in both urban tracts and rural places was a priority. Job training was also an important component that had to be pursued various ways.

What specifically was Seward looking for in determining which regions would get more money?

First, he said, he was looking for projects and initiatives that would be real rather than highly speculative.

Secondly, he was attracted to providing training for hard-to-place workers. To increase employment, appropriate training had to be available.

Third, the community development aspects of state government help needed to be effective — things like funding for sprucing up business districts, providing community housing, and helping cultural venues.

Finally, the deciding factor for this state senator was the confidence that a region could accomplish the things it had said it could. “They need to pull it off,” he concluded.

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