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Why I Won't Be Attending the Democrats' Workshop on June 14th

June 12, 2008

Crotonblog: Letters to the Editor, Croton-on-Hudson, New York 10520
To the editor:

The Democratic Committee has invited interested citizens to attend a workshop at the Ottinger Room of the Croton Free Library on Saturday, June 14, at 3:00 p.m.

Who was the genius that selected the date and time—a sunny, summery Saturday afternoon in Croton when anyone with half a brain and a swimsuit will be at Silver Lake or out sailing on the Hudson? The announcement also should have promised snacks and cold refreshments supplied by one of Croton’s delicatessens. Lately, the leaders of Croton’s Democratic Party have shown themselves to be insensitive to the nuances of local politics. Rank amateurs, I’d call them, which is why they are out of power.

Anyway, I won’t be there. These are my reasons:

Firstly, it’s foolish for the Democrats to politicize the issue of Croton’s commercial recession. Now is the time for bi-partisan action, not for trying to scoop up a fumbled ball and run with it. This “workshop” only underscores the political ineptitude of the current leadership of the Democratic Party. They tried the same one-sided approach to a debate during the election campaign and got egg on their face for their pains.

Secondly, until Croton publicly acknowledges a few “facts of life” that affect planning, workshops like this will be fruitless venues at which to try to make coherent plans. These “facts of life” that inevitably will dampen the interest of new businesses in Croton include the following: (1) Having been bypassed by the Croton Expressway, Croton’s attractiveness to business has been reduced because of the diminished customer base. The energy crisis only increases the desirability of businesses that serve narrow local needs. These are the kinds of businesses Croton should be seeking.

(2) Amended in 2004, Croton’s village code abounds with restrictions inimical to new business. At a time when Croton should be doing everything possible to attract new business, its code absolutely prohibits (a) desperately needed parking lots (because they would compete with the village’s own station parking lot?), (b) drive-through windows (which have been shown to speed up transactions and reduce the need for dormant parking space), (c) certain fast-food restaurants (when Croton abounds in fast-food restaurants; the recently opened Mex-to-Go is a fast-food restaurant and opened despite a ban on fast-food restaurants) (d) automobile agencies (the largest empty commercial space in the village housed an automobile agency until recently).

(3) Croton’s commercial/retail shopping district is not one single continuous shopping street, as in Tarrytown or other Hudson Valley villages through which the old Albany Post Road runs as the main thoroughfare. Croton finds itself with five discontinuous “nodes”: (1) the shopping mall clustered at the ShopRite Supermarket enclave; (2) the South Riverside Avenue/Harmon shopping strip; (3) the Van Wyck/Croton Commons facing shopping strips; (4) the Grand Street shopping strip making up the so-called Upper Village; and (5) the vestigial shopping strip in what was formerly called the Lower Village at the north end of Croton, a considerable part of which was destroyed in building the Expressway. Each of these poses separate and distinct problems.

Thirdly, it’s useless to hold a workshop to ask residents to describe “the Croton we want” when we don’t even have meaningful data about “the Croton we’ve got.” If you ask most people about what they would like to have in their communities to make them ideal, studies show that they want (1) tourism (to bring dollars); (2) gambling (to do away with long trips to Atlantic City or Indian casinos); and (3) low taxes. When they learn that the community that fits these specifications is Las Vegas, Nevada, they quickly rearrange their priorities.

This points up the inadvisability of asking ordinary citizens to participate in planning. The disastrous 2004 restrictive gateway amendment to the zoning ordinance was the result of asking people for their ideas about “the Croton we want.” Well, they got “the Croton they wanted,” but it was a Croton that no business wanted. In the four years since passage of the amendment, not a single new “gateway” business has ventured into Croton because of the ultra-restrictive nature of the amendment. How much more of a cause-and-effect relationship does Croton need to find in these statistics before action is taken to repeal this onerous law?

Croton’s graphic example of the unwisdom of citizen input is Trustee Tom Brennan’s unlamented and poorly designed questionnaire circulated in 2006 asking citizens to expound on “the community center we want.” When the meager results were in, it was apparent that responders had acted like the proverbial “kid in a candy store” and had asked for the moon. It turned out that the results were all over the map. The questionnaire was an example of the “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride” syndrome. The resultant community center would have resembled the Taj Mahal in size and splendor—and would have cost just as much to build and equip. To make matters worse, the Village spent additional dollars on a consultant firm it hired to analyze the questionnaire results. The consultant firm it hired could draw no significant conclusions about what Croton’s citizens wanted—other than “a little of everything.” The result was predictable, given that the questionnaire made no mention of cost as a consideration.

Village government, which should be a leader in the movement to make Croton more attractive to business, has been laggard in its actions since it awakened to the seriousness of the business recession. The first reaction of the Mayor and the Trustees was as expected. They went out and hired some consultants. Even before consultants were engaged or workshops held, among the more obvious actions that could be taken, the village of Croton has the manpower and means to begin a census of available commercial properties in Croton with the objective of ascertaining: (1) locations; (2) size; (3) rental history and turnover; (4) how long currently vacant; (5) rent/sq.ft.; (6) rental term in years; (7) amenities (gas, electric included?). (Photos of these properties have already appeared on Crotonblog under the rubric of “Croton’s Album of Shame.”)

The statistics on empty properties can then be compared with statistics from other and perhaps more thriving communities. But when Croton itself doesn’t know the parameters or the extent of the problem, how useful can citizen input be? At the same time, in order to interest new businesses, Croton should be taking a census of existing businesses to create a sort of Yellow Pages that could be used to attract businesses able to form a symbiotic relationship with existing Croton businesses. Such a survey would answer a question that has been bothering others and me: Does Croton really have 17 delicatessens and a half-dozen nail salons?

Croton’s problems with empty storefronts are twofold: An immediate problem whose solution might be offering assistance to landlords to fill empty retail properties. and a longer-term problem whose solution might be conversion of some properties to new or multiple uses through zoning changes. Either way, a unilaterally sponsored, politically inspired workshop inviting citizen participation is not the way to go. As I said at the outset, it’s useless to hold a workshop to ask residents to describe “the Croton we want” when we don’t even have meaningful data about “the Croton we’ve got.”

— Businessperson

On June 15, 2008 9:48 AM, crotonres said:

Unfortunatly biking to the train is not feasable for most. When you need to wear a suit or skirt to work it is difficult to ride a bike, not to mention the sweat. It also ignores the rain/snow days that take up a good part of the year. Walking also make work for smoe most people want to get home fast after a 50-60 minute train ride on top of how long it takes to get to GCT from their job. Speaking from experience it is a long commute home from NYC and afte a long day at work the last thing people want to do it walk or bike home for a mile.

The main problem regarding Croton businesses is that the town is not walkable. You cannot, for example, get a cup of coffee at the Cow and walk and browse shops. A major redevelopment of one or two areas of the village will be needed to encourage a central business area and stop people from driving to “a” store to pick up what they need.

On June 15, 2008 8:32 AM, TeaDrinker said:

Mr. Wiegman may know something the public does not know. My recollection is that the two recent contracts with outside consultants were for a review of Croton’s problems, not a review of the Harmon committee’s recommendations, as Mr. Wiegman states. Unfortunately, too, his rebuttal did not really address the points made in my letter to the editor, particularly why the Democratic Party is bull-headedly trying to politicize what is a pressing community problem. And the idea of discussing Mr. Wiegman’s big grab bag of “Reality Checks” in 90 minutes is patently ridiculous.

The Expressway took through traffic away from Croton, making its problems unlike those of other villages along the Albany Post Road. Before the ShopRite complex made an appearance, shops in the community of Harmon supplied all that Harmon residents could want in the way of necessities within walking distance of the community. (Many Harmon residents never fully accepted the 1932 annexation by Croton.) Harmon even had its own post office that operated until the 1970’s. Now, with the price of gasoline rising astronomically and not likely to go down anytime soon, the big question may be whether Croton’s separate shopping nodes can each support shops offering the basics, “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” from what may predominantly be foot and bicycle traffic alone.

Thanks to a greedy OPEC still pained by the memory of all the oil it sold for $10 a barrel, and an already-peaked oil supply, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of automobile-oriented suburbia, as we have known it. Croton is lucky, as Mr. Wiegman pointed out, to have mass transit at its doorstep. Now, if we could just get every commuter within a half-mile of the station to walk there, and others farther out in Croton to bike there, village life could begin to approach what life in a small village should be. Commuters would all save money. And with increased walking and bicycle use in the village, everyone’s health would be better. Just ask Ed Rondthaler.

On June 13, 2008 1:21 PM, Leo Wiegman said:

Why I WILL be attending tomorrow’s workhop on Harmon: Even though I just renewed our Silver Lake beach passes yesterday, I am willing to forego 90 minutes of swimming to talk about our economic future. After all, the Ottinger Room is lovely and someone will bring juice and cookies, I am sure.

Local shops deserve more traffic. And the right to expand. Local residents are starting home office and small office businesses left and right. So what are the actual “space” needs in Croton? Do we need more office/retail/service spaces at 1,000 square feet? Or 10,000 sq feet? Or do we need less commercial space? Do we need more dwelling space? Of what sizes? What does the public think?

Recent business closures and the ongoing “for sale” and “for rent” signs warrant some public discussion. The average local resident or shop owner has a great deal of wisdom and insight to lend to this discussion. Anyone could have called for such a discussion. As it happens, the Croton Democratic Committee offered to underwrite the costs of the event and help organize it (Gazette ad, photocopying, prepping handouts, etc), because this topic is so important.

The Workshop will open with a short overview of local trends, demographics, and existing zoning conditions as a refresher on these basic facts. Most of the workshop will be devoted to attendees engaging each other in table discussions on Harmon and reporting the highlights to the other tables: Is more or less commercial development is advisable? What kind of space is most needed? What is hindering this? What best practice models exist of successful developments or businesses? Would we shop more locally even if it meant higher prices? How important is safe pedestrian passage versus easy automobile access? Do any overall themes for redevelopment seem promising to attract new investment ( an arts & culture focus, a river & nature focus, a restaurant row focus)?

The all-volunteer Harmon Committee did arrive at some zoning recommendations that, as Businessperson points out, are now being reviewed by outside experts. The analogy is preparing your basic tax return and asking a CPA to triple check your math and basic assumptions before you file. The expert feedback may or may not support the Harmon Committee’s suggestions or recommend entirely different solutions. But either way, the village needs the input from local residents and business owners on the underlying situation in Harmon.

Tomorrow’s Workshop will NOT focus on the Harmon Committee’s draft proposals, but rather on the underlying questions. Any good ideas that do surface tomorrow will be presented to the Harmon Committee for incorporation. This feedback is timely because the Harmon Committee will be finalizing its recommendations soon once the consultants’ reports come back to forward to the Village Board for deliberation.

Finally, here are some “Reality Checks” on what we can all discuss at tomorrow’s workshop (or on this blog or elsewhere).

Reality Check #1 There are 4 Ways to Fix Village Economics 1. Cut Expenses 2. Raise Fees and Rates 3. Share Services 4. Develop Better Property Values This workshop will focus on #4: How to spur better property development that in turn will raise the tax base. And what that development could or should be.

Reality Check #2 Property Taxes generates 2/3 of all Village Revenue. Home Owners, not businesses, pay vast majority of that. So home owners have been very busy enhancing their properties all decade long. -Every time a homeowner renovates and improves a home, while commercial properties do not, the property tax burden tilts further toward residents.

Reality Check #3 As Businessperson points out, our commercial zones are small…but well-located, near highways, train station, and commuters routes! That is good news, since businesses want access to passers-by. More passers-by mean more business. The challenge is aggregating business opportunities while slowing passers-by down. In fact, tight, dense cluster of commercial development may be preferable to sprawl.

Reality Check #4 Demographic Trends: * Croton’s Population Growth has been faster than County, and will likely continue to do so in next 20 years. * Croton has a higher percentage (37%) adults aged 35-54 than County. Average age in Croton has risen slightly, perhaps due to higher home prices in the past decade that are less affordable to people earlier in their careers. * Average household income in Croton is higher than in the surrounding towns.

Reality Check #5 As baby boomers “age in place” pressure for suitable housing will grow, and households without children will grow in number…or leave. * Almost all the new housing has been large (expensive), single family homes. * Do we want a village emptied of young professionals and grandparents? * If not, we will need more housing for early- and late-career households (assuming we want to keep such households in the mix). This kind of housing is typically smaller, less expensive (e.g. $1,200 one bedroom) apartments and condominiums. The reality is that in Croton the availability of these smaller housing units has NOT kept pace with the population curve.

Reality Check #6 Croton’s Demographics v Surrounding Towns: * Apartment vacancy rate is lower in Croton than in neighboring communities (Why is that?). * Monthly rents are higher in Croton (is this a demand/supply issue?) * Arts, Culture, & Nature are Growth Industries (People will travel quite some distance to enjoy these). * Oil Prices Put Premium on Public Transit (We have superb rail and highway and bus connections).

Reality Check #7 Simple Math: Let’s assume c. 80% of taxes come from homes, and c. 20% from businesses. Can we shift it to 70% from homes and 30% from commerce? Need Radical Shift from past pattern in which the home owners improved their homes, but commercial owners did not. * If Commercial Property Values increase more per year (e.g. 10%) relative to home values, the tax burden could shift strongly from homes (local) to business (regional). In how many years would the commercial zone be paying 30% of the total property taxes, instead of 20%? * Commercial property can ‘regionalize’ the tax base: Many commercial properties in Croton rely on a customer base well beyond the village. Folks from Yorktown who shop at Zeytinia help it pay rent and therefore help the landlord pay local property taxes.

Reality Check #8 As Businessperson points out, existing zoning was amended a few years ago. But the footprint of commercial development in Harmon has been stagnant for much longer, with a few exceptions. So blaming the current state of affairs on the most recent zoning amendments does not explain the long stagnancy prior to 2003. The effort now needs to be on understanding today’s economic realities with an eye toward the likely 5 to 10 year prospects for local population trends, income trends, transportation trends, and consumer behavior trends.

Reality Check #9 Croton’s Harmon District Assets (5 “walks”…): * “Walk-to-Train” Transit Hub (rail-bus). * “Walk-to-Shop” in Harmon’s nearby stores. * “Walk-to-Dinner” with local restaurants. * “Walk-with-History” V.C. Manor, Croton Point. * “Walk-at-Park & River” Recreation close by.

Reality Check #10 5 Reasons to Enjoy Croton Remain Highly Attractive for Folks to Move Here: * Arts & Culture Community is alive and well and needs venues. * Business Clusters Exist already, which is better than not having any such zone to begin with. * Croton Landing’s RiverWalk will be opening soon, enhancing Hudson River access. * Hudson Long Trail is just announced, which will bring out of town hikers past Croton. * Public Transit Value Rising is oil prices climb, making our commuter hub more attractive. There are many more, but this post is LONG enough already. I have to go stimulate the local economy this afternoon!

I am optimistic. And I think the picture is less bleak the longer I study the issues. We are resourceful and have many assets to put to good use. Think Globally, Shop Locally!

-Leo Wiegman

On June 13, 2008 12:17 PM, TeaDrinker said:

While Businessperson makes a valid point about the need for bi-partisanship with regard to economic development in Croton, I understand why Croton Democrats maybe wary of working together with Mayor Schmidt.

To put my comment in context, Mayor Schmidt was the president of the Croton Chamber of Commerce for many years—until it recently merged with the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce. Their office is located in Peekskill. Mayor Schmidt continues to serve as a member of their board of directors.

He also is very active in Croton’s Rotary Club—while serving as its current president.

And according to his past campaign literature, Mayor Schmidt, a chiropractor, touts those positions of leadership and boasts of his business experience as a small business owner himself.

Yes, it all looks great on paper, but in fact, Croton’s mayor has done little to promote economic development in its business districts. In realty, he and his Republican running mates Tom Brennan and Susan Konig have been sitting on their hands all along.

So out of touch is Mayor Schmidt, a neighboring tenant to Wondrous Things, that he was quoted in the Journal News as saying, “I had no idea they were in trouble.” Huh? And worse, he also lives down the street from Wondrous Things too. Hello?

If businesses were to look for words of advice from Tom Brennan, an under-qualified as trustee, building supervisor/steamfitter, he would repeat that, “its up to the free market enterprise.” What? Thanks for nothin’ Tom.

Then, there’s Sue Konig who got her head handed to her at the last village board meeting by two residents after she tried to blame Croton’s business woes on Crotonblog. In short, her solution is better PR. Enter her gal pal and surrogate Maria Cudequest—who she can keep. Yikes!

And, how about Kieran Murray—who, on his own, voluntarily formed the Croton economic development committee? You HAVE to read how Mayor Schmidt mistreated him recently at a village board meeting in this comment by Crotonblog editors.

In sum, obviously, I am very, very disappointed by Greg Schmidt’s job performance as mayor. And to me, it’s NO WONDER that Croton Democrats cannot find any way to work with this hot-tempered and irrational man—or his lockstep running mates.

And get this, he won’t be attending the forum anyway.


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