The painted village

The hamlet of Tannersville. (Courtesy of The Hunter Foundation)

In case you didn’t know it, Tannersville on Greene County’s Mountaintop region now calls itself The Painted Village in the Sky. The genesis story described how artist Elena Patterson painted her grey family home on Cranberry Road orange and purple and yellow and green, as chronicled into immortality by The New York Times in May 2003. The colorful house attracted all kinds of tourists and gawkers. Her idea was to persuade a bunch of storeowners on Tannersville’s Main Street, Route 23A, to do for their buildings what Patterson had done with her house.

The Times article may have been a little light on the role young drunks who went skiing in the daytime and partied hearty at night had played in the decline of Tannersville (“The bar scene was like the Jersey Shore,” as one local described it to me). The Times was accurate, however, in describing the distance the village had to travel in order to resuscitate itself as a place which could again attract, as it had in its heyday, the local population, the seasonal second-homers and the metropolitan tourists.

Tannersville now believes that 15 years later the Painted Village in the Sky has become a successful reality. “They’re seeing the benefits, especially in the summer,” said Sean Mahoney, currently co-chair with Patterson of The Hunter Foundation and owner of Next Step Digital, a Kingston-based web and mobile design and development firm.

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The transformation from an all-cash business locale which left Main Street a wreck every Sunday morning to a place where family businesses served the whole community was neither fast nor easy. It’s still not complete. But many locals, some of whom were once skeptical, are convinced the achievement is now within grasp.

“[The Hunter Foundation] was the tugboat that made it happen,” explained Dave Kukle, a Hunter town councilman, Tannersville village zoning board chair and Hunter Mountain employee. “It has turned the tide.”

Farmer Becky Kempter raking in the Tannersville greenhouse.

As an example of a success story, Kukle talked about the revitalization of the old Villa Maria hotel in Haines Falls. Hunter’s town board was persuaded to reject separate bids for five parcels and to sell the whole thing for development to The Hunter Foundation, which three years later sold it to a private buyer who plans to break ground this spring on a hotel, events center, swimming pool, movie theater, restaurant and game center.

Other foundation-led projects under way or being planned include an organic community farm next to the high school, revitalization of the significant Gooseberry Creek (with a half-million-dollar state-government grant), planning with New York City’s DEP to restore Rip Van Winkle Lake, and work on a network of community trails. Educational collaboration is also a priority.

On its present website, The Hunter Foundation said it had “played a key role” in rehabilitating over 100 homes and 35 businesses and “was responsible for over twelve million dollars put into the community.” The website explains in detail the foundation’s role in 18 significant projects. Getting them and other beneficiaries of this philanthropy completed required and requires money. One of the curious things about the Tannersville renaissance is how obedient it is to the old social taboo that one should never talk publicly about money. Everybody I have talked to in Tannersville knows about where the money has been coming from, and all of them have been grateful for it. But they want to protect the privacy of the donor.

As of Dec. 31, 2016 the Royce Family Fund, Inc. of Greenwich, Connecticut had assets of $116.1 million. Charles ‘Chuck’ Royce, a longtime Onteora Club member and a Wall Street notable for decades, signed on to Elena Patterson’s initiative. He and his family have participated in The Hunter Foundation ever since. Hunter Foundation executive director Anne Jakubowski praised his dedication.

A legend on Wall Street, Royce is best known for putting together investments in small-capitalization funds. A half-century ago, most investments were in established blue-chip securities that paid low interest but were regarded as free from risk. To attract investment money, smaller firms which were regarded as more risky had to offer much higher interest rates. Royce and others realized that an occasional default in a basket of high-interest-paying stocks still left the investor with a higher return than blue chips offered. The strategy proved correct. The fund investors made very high returns and shrugged off the occasional bankruptcies. At least that’s how I understand it.

Royce is a man used to looking at the big picture. He doesn’t lose sight of the whole forest when he looks at an individual tree. He’s using that way of thinking when he participates in the revitalization of the Mountaintop. A number of very different kinds of investments will come together to create a greater community whole. Some will work better than others. The trick is how to choose the proper proportions of the individual parts and stick with the decisions.

Not knowing the man but hearing what others say about his leadership style, I’d guess that he likes to put together a team of people he respects and listens carefully. Decisions are made collectively.

“He loves the town and wants to help the people,” said Dawn Boehlke, who works at Wellness Rx, a patient-centered pharmacy run by Mount Tremper resident Ed Ullmann that the foundation attracted to Tannersville’s Main Street three years ago.

The Mountaintop is poor, and according to Hunter Foundation research growing poorer. According to data presented in 2013, 60 per cent of housing units were then vacant, indicating a large proportion of second-homers.  Seventeen percent of the residents lived in poverty, and over 60 percent had low or moderate incomes.

The last page of the IRS 2016 not-for-profit return for the Royce Family Fund lists under “program-related investments” a note receivable of $14.688 million (down from $16.314 million the previous year and $19.710 million in 2014) regarding the Hunter Mountain Foundation. There is no IRS-listed foundation by that exact name.

The Hunter Foundation wants to support the many places it buys or assists, but it doesn’t want to create a company town.  Private enterprise is an important part of the business model for the Tannersville story. When foundation-owned and -managed properties become sustainable, they will be turned over to private owners.

The 110-foot-by-65-foot greenhouse on the Fromer property next to Tannersville High just west of the village core is from a firm called Harnois in Quebec; it is equipped with fancy devices that control for temperature, humidity and light. The farmers on The Hunter Foundation payroll, Becky Kempter and Dallas McCann, are from Sacramento, Calif. The 56-yard pile of black soil near the Fromer house is from McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton. The propane gas is from Paraco up the hill nearby; the foundation gets a special bulk price for all its properties. The farmers keep their accounts on QuickBooks.

About five-sixths of an acre of the 12-acre Fromer property, a home with a 1903 apple orchard, will be used for growing crops this year. McCann is pleased that there’s no lining between the black soil and the orchard soil. It’s all earth.

The farmers use only hand tools. McCann says one of the goals is to make farming approachable, a community enterprise to be shared. The farmers, who don’t have a contract, are fine with operating on the basis of trust. “They want a farm to feed the town,” explained McCann. “We just want to grow good food for a small town.”

The produce from the greenhouse and the small plot of land outside it will be consumed only on the Mountaintop. The first shiitake mushrooms, grown in old oak logs filled with sawdust with mushroom spores, will be ready for local tables next month.

Inside the greenhouse, McCann and Kempter place black soil into a device called a stamper that shapes 20 neat blocks, each with a neat hole in the middle in which to drop a seedling, in this case celery. Without the plastic trays that usually accompany them at garden centers, the blocks of seedlings are temporarily placed on tables for later transfer to beds of the two-foot-deep block soil in the main greenhouse area. Beds of peas, beets, arugula, turnips, carrots, bok choy and lettuce are nearby. There’s something deeply satisfying about net rows of seedlings bursting through carefully prepared soil.

With the $250,000 for the land and home included, the Fromer farm experiment in market gardening will have cost The Hunter Foundation just under a million dollars.

Can a deeply hardscrabble Catskills mountain town pick itself up by the bootstraps and regain its prosperity as well as its authenticity through local decision-making and focused investment? The Painted Village thinks so. Dave Kukle said there’s been a major upsurge of “young adventurers” in Tannersville. “It’s like [Route] 28 has bubbled over to [Route] 23A,” he said.

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