Ulster County’s tech rainmakers

Sage Ramadge, director of social impact at Grand Central Tech, and Kale Kaposhilin of Evolving Media Network and the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup

Ulster County may be an inflection point in terms of its economic relationship with New York City. Will it continue to be a nice place for city people to spend a restful weekend or a tourist’s visit? Or will it finally develop a sustainable economic base so that people with skills, locals and visitors alike, can earn a decent living here?

Whether Ulster County succeeds is unlikely to depend on a large new employer deciding to locate here. That may be the game in Orange or Westchester counties, but Ulster is just too distant from Gotham to have many opportunities for that kind of attraction. The equivalent of a new IBM is a very, very long shot.

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Instead of attracting large factories, Ulster County is doing what it does best, building social fabric. The bet is that extraordinary settings — places of which its inhabitants are justifiably proud — are more likely to attract economic opportunities. 

The May 2018 issue of AIA Architect describes newly minted architect Scott Dutton’s first visit to Kingston in 1994. “Fresh with architectural credentials, yet saddled with empty pockets, Dutton left New York looking for a less expensive place to call home,” writes Ben Schulman. “ ‘I came up to the Hudson Valley one weekend, and that was it,’ he [Dutton] says. ‘I remember the moment distinctly. This was home. There was something about the architecture of the City of Kingston that drew me in.’ “ 

The economy has changed in the 24 years since Dutton found his new home. So has the culture. Architectural writer Schulman thinks Kingston “layered a more coherent sense of self onto its dispersed geography” after the 1950s. Though not particularly coherent, that appraisal sounds right.

However it originated, that sense of self, more solidly established in Ulster County than ever, seems to retain sufficient value to outsiders that it has helped overcome some of the liabilities that have plagued the county in the post-IBM era.

 

Grand Central Tech (GCT) describes itself as “a vertically integrated community of startups” consisting of more than 100 of New York City’s early-stage companies and founding teams. GCT provides support, guidance and access to the startups it hosts as well as co-working space at its Madison Avenue location. It also prides itself on the programs and social events it organizes, It seems to strive for a more holistic sense of its mission than many other managers of co-sharing spaces do. 

Life in the big city can be relentless, and people of means have been escaping it in the summer for centuries (even after the threat of cholera diminished and air conditioning became commonplace), spending the hot weather in rural hotels, farmhouses and cottages. GCT found the idea of moving en masse or in part to a working retreat attractive. 

GCT is heavily invested in New York City, explained Sage Ramadge, director of social impact at the firm. GCT wants to become established “outside the boroughs,” partly because of the high cost of doing business in The Big Apple. GCT’s leadership asked itself where the right combination of resources, talented people, colleges and regional resilience might be 

Dismissing the Hamptons as “little Manhattan” where 20-somethings didn’t particularly want to venture, the firm looked northward at the Hudson Valley. Several communities stood out, Ramadge said: Poughkeepsie, Hudson, Beacon and Kingston.

GCT’s planning focus was on the social impact on its own customer base. What could entrepreneurs learn from spending summertimes in one of these communities? 

The long and short of it is that GCT chose Kingston. 

The effervescent local tech rainmaker Kale Kaposhilin, co-owner of Evolving Media Network and co-founder of the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup, found himself pleased but surprised by GCT’s choice. After presentations were made by Poughkeepsie and Kingston economic development teams, Kaposhilin had thought GCT was likely to pick Poughkeepsie. 

As they spent time in the Hudson Valley, however, the GCT visiting team became fascinated by Kingston’s possibilities. They walked through the neighborhoods, checked out the tech presence, and noted approvingly the lively street and restaurant scene in the Stockade. They apparently found Kingston, in Kaposhilin’s words, “a compelling alternative.”

Kaposhilin’s insight, which he puts into practice in his own life, is that millennials don’t make a separation between their business lives and their community lives. They want to live in a place where they can do both at the same time. That’s likely to be a place with a strong and resilient social fabric.   

After considerable discussion, GCT and Scott Dutton came to impasse on the terms for a lease of space at the Fuller shirt factory on Pine Grove Avenue in midtown Kingston, where the architect is also the developer. Don Tallerman, co-owner with his wife Judy of the Senate Garage and owner of the digital marketing firm Dragon360, stepped in. Tallerman and GCT agreed on a sort of pop-up arrangement. GCT will occupy the ground floor of the Senate Garage Monday through Friday. On Friday the furniture and equipment will be moved out by truck and the space used for scheduled weekend events. It’ll be returned in time for the Monday workday. 

It’s not clear how many tech workers might be involved in this seasonal satellite encampment. Some of GCT’s incubator firms may move their entire operations to Kingston for the peak summer months. Other workers in the firms may come as individuals. Still others may not come at all. GCT North, as it is being called, could host up to 175 employees from GCT’s hundred-plus member companies, according to an Ulster County government press release. It appears their summer living arrangements will be up to them.

In any case, GCT North represents an opportunity for Ulster County to build more of a presence in a growing industry it has been seeking to attract. The organizers are thinking about weekly programs, internships and other opportunities to enrich the immigrants’ Ulster County experiences.

Kale Kaposhilin is in his element. As Rondout tech entrepreneur Brad Smith admiringly described Kaposhilin’s local role, “All tech roads around here lead to Kale.” 

“I like to bring people together to develop different perspectives,” Kaposhilin explained modestly, “and add to the Stone Soup.”

There are 4 comments

  1. Argus

    Of course it’s not either/or. There is no “sense of self” for Ulster County. There is only a general sense of the culture and economy pervading this area generally, which doesn’t stop at the imaginary county lines.

    You are correct that relationship with NYC is an important factor- where significant numbers of people commute, the relationship is very different. That money helps to fund the local service economy, and population density creates a critical mass of workers and demand that offers the potential for more good local jobs beyond gov’t, eds & meds. Here in UC our population is flat and it’s not much easier to commute so any attempt to mimic that approach is bound to fail.

    What, if anything, is changing? Although there is no common “sense of self” in our area, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many different senses held by different, sometimes overlapping groups. What this column seems to be describing is a community of people who can work in technological services, aged 25-50, who are not particularly ambitious within their field but ambitious by local standards, who share cultural values common to this cohort (mostly liberal/libertarian politics, interest in sustainability, willingness to spend money on food/experiences vs. material objects).

    The most likely outcome is that the status quo will continue, although it will look different on the surface. There may be a slight uptick in jobs that look like “winners” because they involve technology, which media and political observers always treat as sexy, but those jobs won’t, on average, be any better-paying or secure than other jobs currently available. The same factors that make it possible to work remotely in tech also make tech companies and workers more vulnerable to being outcompeted by top-performers in Silicon Valley, Seattle and NYC (not to mention and China and India). Also, as is the case with small companies and freelancers, they’re much less likely to be saving money and more likely to be deferring debt or to be under-insured. That may be OK when you’re younger and more energetic but it’s a recipe for bitterness further down the road.

    Want a good job that won’t get outsourced? Become a plumber or electrician.

    1. JamaicaonHudson

      I agree with much of what you’ve written–with the exception of your contention that Ulster County doesn’t have a “sense of self”. Having grown up here, I think just the opposite…It’s always felt like “home”. It’s not necessarily readily understood by people who aren’t from here, however most “locals” understand that this place has a very strong sense of identity.

      1. Argus

        I should have said there is no single strong sense of self common to all or even most people. I think that goes for natives and transplants alike.

        Sveikauskas, who is not a native but has been here for over 40 years, assumes his readers are interested in the creation of more well-paying local jobs (usually tech-related), and the main problem is how to facilitate this through government incentives and local cheerleaders. There sense of self for this area does require that they balance our rural charms and scoff at pretentious city-people, but its also wrapped up in anxiety about whether our economic future is to be the landscapers, waiters and maître d’s for weekenders or if we can develop a more well rounded local economy.

        But there’s a sizable contingent of folks, mostly natives, who believe the bigger problem is property taxes. They rail about actually controversial proposals (like sanctuary cities) and harmless pro-environmental initiatives (like do-gooders assembling a “green task force” to urge conservation). It’s all imagined as a foolish liberals wasting their tax dollars. They constantly express the desire to move to a southern state with lower taxes.

        Then there’s a whole other group that’s just not engaged at all with what’s happening and have no regional consciousness whatsoever. They could be living anywhere.

        Is there some overlap in these Venn diagrams? No doubt. Is the group interested in the conversation this column is having composed of the most optimistic, pro-community, most-likely-to-get-together-for-collective-action residents? And the other folks generally a sour bunch of zero-sum complainers unlikely to do anything positive on the community level? Double yes.

        I guess I just felt like it was worth making the distinction between the different groups. If the goal is to get EVERYONE on the same page, it’s never going to happen. But it is possible to preach to and win over the motivated vanguard- people interested in reading columns like this, going to community meetings, getting involved in local politics, and putting in sweat equity.

  2. Susan H

    The level of technology knowledge in Western MA compared to Boston, MA is lower much as Argus suggested for comparing Ulster County to NYC. But, I personally don’t know the level of expertise of tech companies that are in Kingston and the surrounding areas. It was quite surprising to my sister who had been at the forefront of the UI field in the Boston area for many years to find that companies in Western MA were so far behind. The professionals she encountered in Western MA often did not know what she was talking about. At times, it seemed that technology in Boston was light years ahead of Western MA. She ended up commuting to either Boston/Cambridge or Hartford. Also tele-commuted.

    When my sister and I had first moved out to the western part of MA almost 15 years ago, there was a lot of talk of making this area a technology hub. It never happened. Now, UMASS Amherst is finalizing the purchase of Mount Ida College in Newton and turning it into an extension campus for students who are interested in technology, science and medical fields and obtaining experience with nearby companies in and around Boston. It definitely sounds like UMASS Amherst doesn’t believe that this area can attract cutting edge technology companies.

    Maybe colleges and universities in the Ulster County area can team up with current and future tech companies in much the same way UMASS Amherst is with their newer campus-if they have not all ready.

    I think the age range of people working in the tech field can be expanded: 22-65(or beyond).

    Does Kingston have a co-working space like this? https://amherstworks.io
    AmherstWorks is open 24 hrs a day with access by a keycard. There are different spaces to rent where people come to work. Yearly or shorter time periods. Communal areas. Indoor cafe.

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