Wildberry ain’t Wilmorite

On Monday evening, June 4, in New Paltz, a quasi-governmental county agency, several of whose members were so new they hadn’t yet met each other, held a public hearing on a scaled-back $42-million project which still has a lot of loose ends. The convener was the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency, the project the Wildberry Lodge & Spa, and the hearing venue New Paltz High School on South Putt Corners Road. 

About 50 persons attended the New Paltz hearing, at which UCIDA chair John Morrow served as hearing officer. Developer Steve Turk of the Turk Hospitality Group and architect Rick Alfandre provided short presentations. The audience comment period was civil. Of the 15 or so speakers, most were supportive of the package of standard IDA tax breaks for Wildberry Lodge. If anyone had expected a community eruption in New Paltz of the kind that had greeted the ill-fated Wilmorite student-housing proposal a few years ago, they were doomed to be disappointed. 

Quite a few public officials were present: the majority of the town board, the village mayor, two members of the school board and two county legislators. That New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez spoke in support of the project may have blunted some of the negativity which can characterize public discourse about development proposals in New Paltz. Bettez praised the level of detail the Turks had provided. “We’re investing, not losing taxes,” he said. “We should not be against everything.”    

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 Several people from the business community spoke. “This is beyond my wildest dreams,” enthused Fawn Tantillo, an Ohioville neighbor. “This is what New Paltz wanted.” 

Local chamber head Dr. David Ness assured the hearing that “this is not a Wilmorite.” 

People connected to Rocking Horse Ranch and other Turk activities praised the developer’s substantial track record of community involvement

 

Consideration of a payment in lieu of taxes for the largest new development proposal in Ulster County in more than decade, promising at least 145 full-time-equivalent jobs, comes at an awkward time. The politically bitterly divided Ulster County Legislature last month voted to seat four new members, none of whom have IDA experience, to the seven-person IDA board. Two sitting members were reappointed, and the seventh seat is expected to be filled by the county legislature later this month. 

Because of resignations and absences, the UCIDA board recently had trouble assembling a quorum. IDA chair Mike Horodyski had quit almost a year ago. Member Michael Bernholz resigned more recently. Member Rob Kinnin hasn’t attended meetings in more than half a year. For the IDA to conduct business, the four remaining members of the seven-person board — chair John Morrow, Randall Leverette, James Malcolm and John Livermore — all had to show up. 

The process of making new appointments to the board began earlier this year in the legislature’s Economic Development Committee. After interviews of all applicants and negotiations, the committee recommended IDA reappointment of Leverette of New Paltz and Malcolm of Highland. They didn’t reappoint Livermore, and they left chairman Morrow’s place on the IDA up to the full legislature (it’ll be Resolution 166 at the June 19 legislative meeting). They came up with four new names to recommend to the legislature: Saugerties town councilman Paul Andreassen, union official Mike Ham of Kingston, Kingston restaurateur Daniel Savona and Wawarsing councilman and former county legislator T.J. Briggs. 

Legislature chairman Ken Ronk thought everyone on the committee had agreed on the process and its result. At the full legislature meeting, however, Democratic leader Hector Rodriguez moved the substitution of the name of retired banker Rick Jones of Kerhonkson for that of his former Democratic legislative colleague. Jones had interviewed well, Rodriguez said, and committee votes don’t bind members in legislative votes.  

Rodriguez’ motion passed with the support of Saugerties legislator Joe Maloney, who caucuses sometimes with the Republicans and sometimes with the Democrats. Kingston Republican legislator Brian Woltman also sided with the Democrats, saying he did so solely because he thought Jones would make a good IDA member. He said he had shared his views with Ronk prior to the legislature vote.

So that’s the political background. Republican Ronk was furious that Democrat Rodriguez had poached committee members Maloney and Woltman into changing their votes in the full legislature. With neither major party having a majority and a lot of independent minds, Joe Maloney sensed a fluid situation. Control of the legislature is unclear. The fight over the IDA appointments is just one field on which local politics is playing itself out.

Four members of the board attended the New Paltz hearing, Morrow and Leverette from among the holdover members and Andreassen and Ham from the newly appointed ones.

As of the beginning of this week, the Ulster County government website listed the members of the old IDA board but not the new. The county legislature’s site, however, listed the new members.

 

Treating the Ulster County IDA as the trophy in a partisan game of political football is not the best way to achieve economic development. The IDA has not been perfect, but it has not given out, in legislator Joe Maloney’s words, “a lot of shaky tax exemptions.” In fact, it’s instituted clawbacks to recover money stemming from unrealized developer promises. At the Monday night session, veteran IDA attorney Joseph Scott provided a spirited defense of the local agency, calling its procedures and assessment tools among the most innovative in the state.   

John Morrow, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who was elected chair by his colleagues, has bent over backward to be collegial, transparent and fair-minded. Joe Maloney wants to get Morrow off the IDA board. He has counted legislative noses. At the New Paltz hearing, at which Maloney spoke, he asked why Wildberry Lodge needed tax breaks if it was such a great project. (The answer is that the local developer couldn’t get financing if he didn’t have the tax break for the project’s early years.)  

What kind of IDA might provide a boost to the still-stagnant economic climate of Ulster County? Two routes have been suggested. One has been to keep politics out of the IDA. The other has been to provide political representation on it. I favor the former course of action, but am willing to listen to arguments in favor of the latter.

Local IDAs have a measure of both economic power and status. Their power stems from what they do with the one percent fee they extract from development projects in exchange for tax exemptions.  Last year the UCIDA for the first time solicited proposals and made awards. Earlier this year the agency announced a second round and made total awards of $135,000 for six projects (that’s another story). The IDA’s status comes from its bully pulpit. Its proceedings give it insight into the economy of Ulster County. At the monthly IDA sessions, the members also hear a short, usually optimistic verbal report from Suzanne Holt of the county’s economic development office.

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