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.
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.”