Walk down Main Street in the Hudson Valley today and you will see empty storefronts and businesses struggling to stay open. Move a little further out of town and you’ll find brand new houses on three-acre lots for sale and empty strip centers. Is it just the lackluster economy and winter blues that’s driving the ever-increasing desperate look of our communities or is it something more deeply rooted in our towns and villages?
“It’s a devastating combination of the economic downturn, a shift in demographics, and the wrong type of growth catching up with us,” says Nancy Proyect, president of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, a public policy and advocacy nonprofit organization based in Sugar Loaf. “In an effort to combat the effects, we’re encouraging our local communities – interested citizens, community planners, and municipal officials – to use the current economic slowdown to plan their future in a smarter way.”
Proyect says that providing people with case studies of successful community planning efforts is just one way the Citizens Foundation is encouraging the right type of development in the right places. The organization sponsored a series of walking tours of various communities throughout the region in 2008 and 2009 and offered a full-day conference last spring to bring the success stories, and the accompanying challenges, home. Another conference is planned for March 12th at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh with more tours planned for later in the spring.
The workshop will combine the talents of nationally-recognized planning experts with in-the-trenches experiences of local community leaders. “We want to be sure that people who attend these sessions walk out with steps they can immediately implement,” Proyect says. “It’s easy for us to bring a bunch of experts in for a day to talk about our problems.” It’s more difficult to offer and produce results that aren’t cost prohibitive in this tough economic climate. “We’re bringing the national experts in but we’re matching them up with people from our local communities to be sure the conversation stays relevant and achievable.”
“If we’ve learned anything in the past 40 years about effecting change in our communities,” Proyect says, “it’s that often the best results come from letting people learn from each other.” This was a main element in the walking tours and the open dialogue paid off, according to Lou Marquet, a Citizens Foundation trustee and one of the organizers of the tours and conferences. “We were amazed during our walking tours how much useful knowledge was passed between our host communities and the people that attended the tours as guests. People from Ramsey, NJ learned from the experiences of people from Goshen and Monroe and vice versa.” This year’s conference will provide the same type of interactive environment, he adds.
Richard Anderson, President of the New York Building Congress, will set the tone of the day by providing an overview of how and why our communities currently plan the way they do. Anderson’s long history in planning includes a stint as president of the Regional Plan Association, the nation’s oldest metropolitan planning organization, serving the Tri-State region. He was also the first elected president of the American Planning Association and helped found the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Directly following Anderson’s talk, speakers from the cities of Beacon, Kingston and Newburgh will be on hand, as well as from Orange, CT, Warwick, Goshen, Monroe and Sullivan County.
James Moore, Senior Vice President and National Director of Community Planning & Urban Design for the engineering firm HDR will provide a national perspective on creating great places as a keynote speaker. Mr. Moore will bring examples of challenges that communities from Nebraska to Florida have faced and met. Following Mr. Moore’s talk – more interactive discussion. “What’s working right now and right here,” says Proyect. “That’s what we’re after.”
Regional experts will moderate each panel discussion to tie together the national perspective with the local one. Stuart Turner of the planning firm the Turner-Miller Group and David Kooris of the Regional Plan Association – both of whom have worked extensively in our local communities – will help lead the panels.
The municipal planning community is on board with the Citizens Foundation’s direction. So much so that for the past two years, the umbrella organization for municipal planning officials in the County, the Orange County Municipal Planning Federation, has provided funding for the tours and conferences and offers NYS mandated continuing education credits to those who participate.
Marquet says having the planning and zoning board officials on board is key, but another key, which is often missing in the discussion, is the public. “We need the public to tell our municipal officials what they want – not just what they don’t want. We need public participation from the beginning. If people want their transportation hubs and shopping centers within walking distance from their home, then they’ve got to let their community leaders know. If they want sidewalks in their town so kids can safely walk to school and our school systems can cut down on transportation costs they’ve got to tell their community decision-makers where they want the new school built or that new housing complex. If we plan together from the beginning, our communities will start to look and function the way we want them to and our region will prosper.”
For more information on the upcoming conference and walking tours, please contact the Orange County Citizens Foundation at 845-469-9459 or visit our calendar or placemaking pages.