If there’s a reason why New Paltz has nice things, it might be the Community Improvement Team (CIT). This is a group of volunteers who have been trying to get the village core, in particular, to live up to the notion that New Paltz is a tourist community and should thus have some nice packaging to impress those who stop in to enjoy the hiking, biking and leaf-peeping that comprises a sizable part of the local economy. Longtime CIT member Vici Danskin sat down to share some of this group’s history, contributions and dreams.
Danskin only joined the CIT around 2004, but she explained that it came about before the turn of the century, thanks to the efforts of Gardiner resident Doris Colucci and Joyce Minard, who was then president of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce. They put out a call for volunteers interested in beautification, and secured funding not only from the Chamber, but from town and village governments as well. Those hanging flower baskets which adorn light posts on Main Street were among the first projects of the CIT, members of which also oversee the displays of American flags and winter holiday decorations. Initially, the volunteers watered all the flowers themselves from a golf cart, but water is heavy and golf carts are weak, so the task was eventually sturned over to the village’s Department of Public Works and the heavier equipment those employees can bring to the table.
While the CIT is not a joint municipal effort, such as the Bicycle-Pedestrian or Transportation Implementation committees, the group continues to enjoy financial support from both governments. Danskin could not quote the exact figure provided from either town or village budgets, but she said that the team never uses as much as is provided. These days, most of what’s spent is used to hire landscaper Keith Buesing to maintain some key locations, such as Peace Park, the community center’s rain gardens and the “welcome to New Paltz” sign uptown; the CIT simply doesn’t have enough volunteers to pull all the weeds by hand anymore. Danskin said that she’d like to train municipal employees — such as from the village DPW and town buildings and grounds department — on how to properly maintain these garden spaces in the future.
Peace Park was a major project for the CIT. When the triangular piece of land was first dedicated in the 1990s, its centerpiece was the peace pole. When village officials entered into a sister city agreement with Osa, Japan in 1998, the communities exchanged sculptures and the massive Japanese gift was placed in the pocket park. Ahead of the 50th anniversary of Osa, in 2005, CIT members obtained a grant from Starbucks to plant a garden around the sculpture, which now occupies a significant amount of the park’s area. The effort was to make the entire space more “parklike,” and involved DPW employees as well as members of the Chamber, garden club, community garden and sister city committee.
Although village employees did most of the planting of the expanded “friendship garden,” it was up to CIT members and anyone they could wrangle to keep it alive. “It was quite a big deal to water for the first few years,” Danskin said. High school students needing community service, and defendants sentenced to community service, helped with that massive effort to get the plantings established so that they could survive on precipitation alone. Osa has since been consolidated into the much larger Niimi City, so in a sense, the friendship garden is all that’s left of the sister-city relationship.
Primarily, what the present group of CIT members do is coordinate beautification efforts. That includes getting donations — Wallkill View Farm has provided those hanging baskets for many years — as well as encouraging property and business owners to keep their part of the street free of litter and looking spiffy. The town’s justices no longer provide hands for those efforts via alternative sentencing, Danskin said, but some town roads continue to be picked clean of litter thanks to county judges sending bodies their way. They also take care of information kiosks at the rail trail and the main village parking lot on Plattekill, which members developed with support from Mohonk Preserve and PDQ Printing.
“Gardens need maintenance,” Danskin said, and the CIT is always seeking fresh blood to help with those ongoing efforts. She and another member are master gardeners, willing to pass on their skills to anyone willing to use them in service to the community. Right now, the team doesn’t even have enough members to maintain all the spaces under their purview. The tiny Rotary park where the rail trail crosses Main Street, for example, needs to be weeded and cleaned up monthly from April to October, but it isn’t getting done. Rotary Club members paid to create the space during the first West administration, but there hasn’t been a consistent commitment by its members to maintain it, which is why Danskin would like to see the CIT able to take it over entirely. “People are less enthusiastic about maintenance in July or August,” she said, than in the spring when everything feels new again.
“New Paltz is a rather expensive community to live in, but it sure doesn’t look like it,” Danskin said. Perhaps it’s because the village has a much higher percentage of rental units than other tourism-focused communities (think Rhinebeck), but for whatever reason Danskin doesn’t think there’s a lot of civic pride swelling the in breasts of New Paltzians. CIT members continue to work on incremental improvements — they focused on illegal postings along Main Street a few years ago, and have their eyes on illegal temporary signs outside of businesses right now — but still the community’s appearance is a far cry from other places that welcome tourists every year. It’s not just about economics, either: “Community improvement is about quality of life,” Danskin said. “It would be nice if everybody could share the concern, and set a higher standard for ourselves.”
In the past several years, CIT has taken on the coordination of the annual Clean Sweep from the Chamber of Commerce. That massive springtime effort brings together hundreds of volunteers, from lifelong residents to transient college students, to clear away the accumulated trash of winter and give the community a fresh face for the warmer weather.
The bigger picture might be to involve more stakeholders in CIT meetings, which are held the first Wednesday of the month at the Community Center, at 7:30 in the morning. Danskin envisions the CIT as a “clearinghouse for ideas and projects,” and meetings already have representatives from the Lions, Rotary, town and village governments to brainstorm and discuss efforts. That could be expanded to include liaisons from the garden club and Shade Tree Commission, leaders of scout troops and representatives of “any organization interested in improving community life here.” More government support, both in enforcement of laws and education of property owners, would also make a big difference, she said.
All told, Danskin acknowledges that litter is less prevalent in New Paltz now than it was ten years ago, and the community’s visual appeal is much better than when she moved here in the 1960s. Little things like cigarette butts and small instances of graffiti, however, have a way of shifting psychology so that it becomes easier for the next person to offend. Like the health of a body or the precision of a finely-tuned automobile, allowing community appearance to flag can easily lead to more serious social problems. All it takes to prevent that, though, are a few good people willing to lead by example to ensure that New Paltz maintains its community health for a long time to come.
Editor’s note: The willingness of residents to serve their communities plays a large role in what makes our towns so great. This is the second in a series of stories which will focus on volunteer committees/commissions and how their activities change a town’s local color. If you’d like to suggest a group to be included in this series, please e-mail editor Deb Alexsa at firstname.lastname@example.org.