The Hudson Valley Mall seemed at one time destined to become Ulster County’s retail Mecca, an air-conditioned modern 17-acre windowless one-stop shopping hall plus social gathering place. This vision, at the time eagerly awaited by many and considered dystopian by others, expressed aspirations whose time had come. It now appears gone.
The coming of the mall represented a massive shift in Ulster County’s economic geography. The distinctive quality of small-town Ulster retail life was to be replaced by a cornucopia of consumerism. It was said that there’d be more choice and better value to everyone in this well-planned setting. The mall-centric world represented a progressive lifestyle that would meet popular needs. It would import national brands to our sadly neglected area, dictate new fashions, provide a meeting place for young consumers, and make quite a few bucks for the developers that built it, too.
On my visit the day after Christmas, many of the Hudson Valley Mall hallways once filled on both sides with busy retail stores were covered like museum walls with vastly enlarged images of another departed local era, 19th-century Kingston industrial life. The pictures celebrated local history, the local environment and local culture. Said one mall slogan: “Strengthening the communities where we work and live.”
An explanation crafted by or for mall owner Hull Property Group dominated one wall toward the north end of the long corridor. “We are inspired by the possibility of growth and achievement depicted through the Mall,” it read, “as the area continues to thrive as a wonderful place to live, play and learn.”
The inspiration, like the mall itself, is in major transition. Big anchor stores like Macy’s, Sears and JC Penney are long gone, but Best Buy, Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods remain. Permanently joining the steady leakage from the list of mall tenants this winter will be shops such H&M, Hot Topic and F.Y.E. There are still multiplex movie screens and a diminished food court.
The mall is now half-empty, poised for either a transformation or a re-use. The ebullient expectations of endlessly expanded experiences the mall once promised have been doused. Part of the footprint of the departed Macy’s is now the site of an 88,000-square-foot separate building operated by Nuvance Health intended to provide primary care, family medicine, residency training and urgent care.
Post-office boxes still sit in one hallway toward the north end of the mall. But the Citizens Bank, located opposite the hallway at the south end from bankruptcy-threatened Claire’s (mostly for tween girls) and Signature Nails and Spa, was abruptly shuttered in December. The bank branch is gone, its $60 million in deposits encouraged to transfer to the Citizens Bank on Wall Street in Kingston less than three miles away. No sign is posted, but former tellers’ stations are visible through the locked door.
Like the rest of the economy, both the retail trade and finance industries are in constant flux. Retail trade, which accounts for one in every seven Ulster County jobs, employed 8900 in November, down 200 from a year before. The financial sector employed 2500 in Ulster County, up 100 from a year before.
Historically, American banking started out largely place-based — and that place in Ulster County became predominantly Kingston’s Stockade area. Today, county depositary institutions include national players (led by four banks with a trillion dollars each in deposits), a few regional banks, and close to a dozen savings banks, local commercial banks and credit unions.
Management attitudes toward accumulating deposits vary greatly. Some banks have a preference for deposit-generating branches, and others invest more in technology-based services through ATMs and on-line banking. Many, but not all the national depositary institutions, have pursued technology and big-business lending rather than expanding their brick-and-mortar branch networks.
The local banks keep more of a community touch. While most of the national banks have systematically culled their local branch networks over the years, many local banks in the Hudson Valley have been more than willing to pick up the slack. Among local depository institutions opening new branches, the Hudson Valley Credit Union, now with 21 branches, and The Bank of Greene County, with 17, have been particularly aggressive. For the past several years, the local depositary institutions have been growing deposits faster than have the national banks.
Jane Garrity, branch manager of the Citizens Bank, can look out 20-foot-square windows beneath a 30-foot-high ceiling on Wall Street to the county courthouse (“1818”) next door and across the street to the Old Dutch Church and the original headquarters of the Ulster Savings Bank, founded April 13, 1851. On one wall is a John Pike mural celebrating old Kingston, and to the rear is a massive open steel safe that looks every inch a worthy depository for Scrooge McDuck’s bags of money. There’s an ATM at the front and parking at the rear.
“We understand there are a lot of options for those looking for financial services,” the Citizens Bank website declares. “That’s why we place top value on the customer relationships we earn, and why we will always strive to be a good corporate citizen in each of our communities.”
Garrity spent 20 years in the non-profit sector before becoming the branch manager of the then-Fleet bank in the former A&P supermarket space in Bradley Meadows in Woodstock. She has worked for several banks since then, has run the Uptown farmers’ market in Kingston, and has served on the Kingston Uptown Business Association and Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley boards. She’s been in her present position for a year and a half.
Garrity said she likes Citizens’ philosophy of community support, and added that she had nothing to do with the bank’s decision to close its Hudson Valley Mall branch.
As of mid-2019, the Wall Street branch had $89.5 million in deposits, while the Hudson Valley Mall location had $60.1 million. A lot of Citizens customers have been inquiring about bank services at the Wall Street location recently.
Deposits at Fleet Bank’s Woodstock branch had been growing steadily under Garrity’s management when Bank of America bought the Providence-headquartered regional bank more than a decade ago. Woodstock deposits kept growing, hitting a robust $107 million in 2017, the last year of that branch office’s operation. Closing both its Woodstock and Ellenville branches, Bank of America consolidated in Kingston and New Paltz. Woodstock presently hosts a decade-old Ulster Saving Bank office ($48 million in deposits) and now a Bank of Greene County branch ($13 million) in the former A&P as well. It also hosts a branch of the Mid-Hudson Federal Credit Union. Nearby West Hurley has a Rondout Savings Bank branch ($32 million).
From the standpoint of deposits (and likely profitability), the Bank of America’s strategy worked. Most depositors at the closed locations didn’t change banks. Federal banking data shows Bank of America’s total Ulster County deposits at $428 million before the closings in mid-2017, and after the closings $431 million in mid-2018 and $424 million in mid-2019.
With rapidly growing on-line retail sales, with the urban revival, and with changing cultural preferences, the bifurcation between mall versus non-mall retail trade has so far resulted in a David-versus-Goliath outcome that few would have predicted a generation ago. But in the retail marketplace the game is never quite over.
It’s never quite over in finance, either.
As the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus put it, “Change is the only constant in life.” We should be careful about what we anticipate. Change always takes unexpected turns.
In banking, the competition among innovators using online transactions and mobile-phone technology will provide customers with a new set of options for how to conduct their finances. But fintech is just an ingenious and efficient set of consumer tools, unlikely by itself to make complex banking relationships suddenly irrelevant.
Where this all leads no one can yet know. Like retail, finance is in constant transition.