Ellenville’s in the running for a “Hometown Takeover”

(Photos by Gerald Berliner)

Ellenville has been compared to the phoenix – the mythical bird that “cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again.” Or a roller coaster. Ups and downs. Recent impetus is looking as though regeneration is on the rise, what with a veritable Restaurant Row on Canal Street. And, in the midst of real action to brand the village as a viable destination for up-and-coming businesses and as a good place to live, Ellenville has entered the reality TV fray.

HGTV has launched a competition for a new show dubbed Hometown Takeover, wherein a certifiably downtrodden town of 40,000 citizens or less – one that’s struggling to be its best in the 21st century and in need of some TLC – wins a makeover. As one might imagine, the competition is stiff. Lots of small towns across the country are in dire survival mode. Some 1,600 entries are vying to become one of the ten winning villages, which will each undergo a cosmetic renovation by the HGTV team, particularly focusing on their downtown areas. Erin and Ben Napier, hosts of Home Town, will present six episodes of this civic-renewal project in 2021. 

Certain principals of the Town of Wawarsing, the Village of Ellenville and the Ellenville Central School District jumped at the chance to compete. In fact, the three parties have already mounted a multifaceted campaign to bring renewed interest and energy to the village – the branding and marketing effort being led by Gerald Berliner, currently best-known for his drone photographs of the Hudson Valley.

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A Londoner by birth, Berliner has lived in town since 2007 and calls Ellenville “the best-kept secret.” He’s dedicated to advertising the region’s attributes: its ecotourism in the availability of hang-gliding, mountaineering, hiking the rail trails, trekking up Minnewaska’s Sam’s Point. “We also have big cultural attractions,” Berliner says, mentioning Shadowland Stages, along with the various museums and historical sites. “Ellenville is spearheading a wayfinding sign program, sponsored by the county. ‘Theater District.’ ‘Restaurant Row.’ ‘Tourist Information Center.’ These really help to put you on the map – plus the new website, Find Yourself in Ellenville. To be taken seriously, we have to present ourselves seriously: send the signal that we care about our citizens and businesses.”

The HGTV opportunity just landed in their laps. “We cottoned onto it quite late and didn’t have a lot of time to pull it all together,” Berliner says of the application process. “It was a two-part submission: the story and a few photographs; but they did stress that a video would do better as the main attraction. We had to quickly try to balance our past with reasons for our present, and what the potential is for them to come in and fix it up.

“For this pitch, you have to feature what’s wrong – total warts-and-all, and we’ve got a few warts in Ellenville. It’s a reality TV show, so we needed to be real. I think it might be interesting if it throws a spotlight on the challenges that small towns face on a monthly basis, particularly a rural town like ours. It’s an extremely valuable exercise for us. It’s generated a lot of excitement for the community.”

The YouTube video submitted to HGTV includes Berliner’s photo stills and drone video shots of the village and surrounding landscape, along with historical photos of Ellenville’s past and a greeting from mayor Jeff Kaplan. The voiceover is done by actor Ray Faiola. “We had to tailor the video to what we thought would be realistic for them to take on: dilapidated houses, boarded-up shops. We have no idea how it’s financed or how it’s going to go [if we win] or what the timetable will be. We just hit the Send button with our application and read, ‘Thank you for your submission, we’ll get back to you shortly.’”

The television show is looking for a town’s culture and traditions, its significant history in the region, its points of pride and needs for civic revival. “Even if we don’t win, we’re still going to be moving ahead like gangbusters. A noticeable groundswell of interest signals that tides of fortune are turning in our favor. Our promotional campaign will start capitalizing on that with specific goals: boost ecotourism, greater exposure to events and people attraction, pulling people in, weekenders, businesses.” He talks about the need for viable retail establishments and hospitality options.

When asked whether there’s some concern that a new version of Ellenville might suffer from symptoms of gentrification, as other upstate towns do now, Berliner says, “Ultimately, what is it we really want and need? Do you want to run the risk of being overrun every single weekend with people causing a lot of disturbance to our residents? There’s a fine line you have to be aware of. We have to go about it by striking a balance. I’ve seen all our challenges and our problems. We are definitely moving into a new era, and it’s time to capitalize on that and get us both seen and heard in a positive light.”

Stay tuned. Ellenville just might be moving into prime time.

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