The focus of Pat Ryan’s first State-of-the-County address last Thursday morning, Jan. 30, at Kingston High School was on programs and initiatives that would provide more economic opportunities to keep more young people in Ulster County after graduation. Ryan graduated from the school 20 years ago.
After a warm introduction from high-school guidance counselors Alan Aidala and Karen Madonna, Ryan addressed an audience of about 150, with a larger number of students in attendance than politicians. “I was told that if you wanted to succeed, you needed to leave,” said Ryan, who attended West Point and started a software company after two Army deployments to Iraq. “You needed to go away to college, you needed to move to a city to get a job, that success wasn’t here. The idea that you need to leave Ulster County to be successful is bullshit.”
There was an eruption in the crowd. As it subsided, Ryan apologized for his language. He explained. In a poll given to current students from Ulster County’s nine school districts, he said, only 15 percent reported that they definitely planned to stay in Ulster County. Some 47.6 percent said that they planned to leave the county. Ryan said that he hoped to change that “bummer.” He wanted all of them “at least considering” settling down in the county.
“I just remember over and over people asking me some version of the same question,” he reported. “What are you doing next? Do you have it all figured out?”
At that time, he himself knew he wasn’t going to stay. “I didn’t think that I would be back here in this position today,” he said. “I’m hoping that, after today, when you’re asked that question, where do you see yourself in five years, that at least being here in Ulster County is a real possibility.”
Youth opportunities announced
In just under three years, the Ryan administration has set a goal of pairing 1,000 students with local careers in emerging industries in the tech, green, agricultural, and creative-arts sectors. (He wasn’t entirely sure when the 1,000 days would begin, Ryan told reporters after his address, but he was determined to achieve the result).
The program, led by the county’s Department of Economic Development, will include a marketing program to make the process easy for youths and those transitioning to new careers.
Seventy-six percent of the students, he said, marked the existential climate crisis as their top priority. Just over 61 percent gave the first spot to “human rights.”
Ryan announced tuition assistance through a $249,700 grant from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority for Ulster County residents attending the Green Careers Academy at SUNY Ulster. The Green Youth Fellowship program, he said, would place recent high school and college grads in green jobs across the county. Funding for this program is included in the county’s 2020 budget.
Other opportunities will be created. Some 45 percent of Ulster County residents had volunteered in the last year in some capacity. Ryan announced the “Living History” volunteering initiative, through which students between the ages of 14 and 18 outfitted with cameras will visit elderly residents who are housebound. The young people would be ready to provide company and record personal histories.
Ryan also touted an attempt to increase the number of individuals volunteering with emergency services. Youths between the ages of 14 and 20 can receive training and join their local fire outfits at the age of 16. Working with UlsterCorps, the Ryan administration aims to assist youths to find fulfilling volunteer opportunities with nonprofit and government entities.
Ryan alluded briefly to a county-wide housing initiative. He said later that further details would become available this month, and that the initiative would require “a tight partnership with the legislature.”
‘We have a housing emergency’
“[It will start with] an in-depth study of what the need is,” he said. “Anecdotally, we know we need this, but we want to know that it’s data-driven. We are looking at county-owned sites that could be made shovel-ready for workforce housing and senior housing … We have a housing emergency, by definition as well as my sense of the situation, and all options are on the table.”
New County Comptroller March Gallagher has started a push for an audit of local Airbnb accommodations. She has said a large portion of the housing crisis may have been caused by the fact that “so much of the housing stock is put into short-term rentals.”
County Legislature Chair Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) agreed with Gallagher in a later interview. “We need affordable housing, market price housing, workforce housing,” he said. “We need housing. What’s not helping it is the Airbnb stuff, people are buying houses, leaving them and just renting them on Airbnb. [Pat Ryan and I] both feel that we need to do a housing study to find out what we need, where we need it, how much of it we need, and so on.”
Youths interested in participating in career-placement or volunteer programs touted by Ryan at the address can text “JOIN” to 877-875-5786.