While many retail properties in the town of Ulster sit vacant, including much of the Hudson Valley Mall along with several big box stores and forgotten fast food emporiums, Joe Mesuda says his row on Morton Boulevard is thriving.
Mesuda, who lives and maintains his office in Hurley said the Morton Plaza at 1090 Morton Boulevard has welcomed three new businesses since the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he’s not afraid to roll the dice on first-time business owners who are willing to give it their all and work hard. Mesuda also owns plazas nearby on Ulster Avenue and Albany Avenue.
The new tenants include the Pink Elephant Cafe, a bright and cheery cafe serving up breakfast, lunch, and delicacies from Kingston-based Jane’s Ice Cream. It’s owned by first-time business owners Erin Hennessy and Juan Gonzalez who came to Kingston from New York City during the pandemic.
Mesuda understands that being first-time business owners can be difficult. “They’ve been able to do quite well in a short time,” he said. He chalked it up to the quality of the product, personalities and an atmosphere that is both fun and kid-friendly.
The other new tenants include Dark Arts Tattoo, owned by a young local couple with a dream of owning their own business, he said, who built a strong online following. More than 40 customers flocked to the tattoo parlor over a two-day period, Mesuda said.
While a years-long trend of people shifting their shopping habits online was shifted into high gear during the pandemic, that hasn’t stopped the opening of a clothing store at the Morton Plaza called Yari’s Boutique which specializes in women’s and kids clothing, Mesuda said.
“She’s working extremely hard,” Mesuda said. “I Love her concept, loved the energy she had and her product is very good. She and her husband worked nights painting to get the space ready.”
A willingness to work hard and put in long hours is a common theme among his most successful and longest-tenured tenants. “That’s what this country is all about, you can open your own business and if you’re willing to work hard you can be successful,” Mesuda said.
Weathering pandemic woes
The businessman has owned the plazas for about 30 years and in that time he’s seen many changes in the area’s economic landscape. He got into the business around the time IBM left the area in the early 1990s, erasing 7000 jobs and leaving behind the troubled Tech City Property, which is now in the process of being foreclosed on by Ulster County. Portions of the site are designated a Federal Superfund site due to contamination.
He said the plazas were a second job, with his other work in the wine and spirit industry allowing him to pour money back into the plazas, upgrading them by adding new signage, air-conditioning systems and glass windows and doors.
The pandemic has put him to another test including dealing with several tenants who have not been able to pay their rent, or who were only able to partially pay.
He said a jewelry store was unable to compete with online shopping, as more and more potential shoppers stayed home and shopped online over concerns of the spread of the virus. “He’s no longer with me,” he said.
Mesuda said every tenant had different needs during the pandemic and he worked with them differently, contrasting the food places doing a steady takeout business to other businesses that were forced to close temporarily.
He said he contacted Lisa Berger while she was heading the Ulster County Department of Economic Development and tried to give his tenants all the help they needed to get state and federal grants. “They were a great asset for a lot of the tenants,” he said.
Still, Mesuda wishes state and Federal officials had done more to help out small businesses.
“During the pandemic, all this money went to big giant corporations,” he said. “It’s not all about these major corporations. They should have given more money to small businesses.”
Tenants and landlords
But other tenants, including a Savona’s Plaza Pizza location and SushiMakio adapted and thrived during restrictions that forced restaurants to go take-out only during last year’s lockdown.
AM Fit, owned by two brothers, also pulled through the pandemic by offering one-on-one personal training along with a nutritionist. “People appreciate one-on-one training,” Mesuda said. “They’re putting in the time they need to be successful.” He included himself among AM Fit’s satisfied customers, adding that he tries to frequent the tenants in the plaza as much as possible.
He pointed to Snippers hair salon, one of his longest-tenured tenants, that also navigated the pandemic successfully. “They’re one the best tenants I’ve ever had.,” he said.
Erin Hennessy who co-owns Pink Elephant with her husband Juan Gonzalez praised Mesuda, crediting him with being part of the reason they decided to start their first business in the plaza.
“Joe is so helpful,” Hennessy said. “We’re younger and he was so encouraging…He gave us a lot of good advice and gave us the opportunity to come over and take over space.”
She said Mesuda is a hands-on landlord, dropping off magazines and leaflets to help the couple get more involved in the community and is always working to help get his tenant’s names to the public. “Anything we need he’s there for us all the time,” Hennessy said.
She admitted it hasn’t always been easy as they started this new business, but that people are finding out and it’s starting to show. “The locals want to spread the word, they’re sharing it on Facebook telling their friends and families to try it out,” she said.
Mesuda said he wants to be the hands-on local landlord that lives only 10 minutes away from his properties. “When someone is opening up a first-time business or a smaller type business it’s good to have the landlord there,” he said. “I can become part of their business. I’ve been around to see why businesses are successful and why they’re not.”
He said his wife would do landscaping and they could be found sweeping parking lots and doing things bigger landlords wouldn’t touch.
“It has unbelievable beautiful gardens, they’re something my wife installed,” he said. “We were the weeder, landscaper, mulcher, painter. “We did everything we could, and we’re still around a lot.”
He said recently when an air-conditioner at SushiMakio broke he came and took a look and made sure it got replaced in short order. Mesuda said the tenant, who previously dealt with landlords in Westchester County that never seemed to get things fixed, couldn’t thank him enough.
Perhaps his biggest challenge this year also came at SushiMakio after an older woman hit the accelerator pedal instead of the gas and smashed through the window and front door of the eatery. This forced the business to endure a period of having plywood in the front.
Mesuda said that left him uneasy as he awaited a contractor to replace the broken door and windows along with damage to the brick facade and metal in front of the storefront at a time when contractors are struggling to keep up with demand and meet project timelines.
“It’s difficult, everyone is so busy,” Mesuda said. “[Just recently] a mason was finally able to finish it. It affects people’s businesses. It wasn’t appealing looking at a space with plywood.
Mesuda said he feels very optimistic about the whole Hudson Valley and Kingston. He pointed to its easy accessibility to New York City, with an exit of the New York state Thruway, Amtrak service just across the Hudson River in Rhinebeck and Metro-North in Poughkeepsie along with Kingston-based Trailways bus service.
“There are a lot of hotels, the lifestyle and the smell of fresh air,” Mesuda said. “It’s a little different than living in a metropolitan city. People are overall just friendly.”
Kingston has great amenities like the expanding network of walking trails and the Uptown and Rondout Business Districts, he said.
He said he expects the area to see continued growth, but he admitted the area could use a couple of major employers, suggesting that officials try to lure three good-sized companies to Tech City so there can be a good number of jobs without a dependence on a single huge employer, as was the case during the years IBM had an outsize presence in the Hudson Valley, not only in the town of Ulster, but also in Poughkeepsie and Fishkill in Dutchess County.
In the meantime, Mesuda said it’s critical that the community continues to support local businesses. «With everything going on and people are nervous about the coronavirus and life in general, we have three people in business on Morton Boulevard who wanted to take a chance and do something themselves,» he said. «America is made on small business.