Archives for category: Local Business

Earlier this year, I wrote about the prospects of Catskill making a comeback, and how the town’s best chance lay in the “creative economy” vision of Nina Sklansky and her Catskill Action Team. Shortly thereafter, this vision was borne out in the announcement of a new farm-to-table restaurant on the site of former Mayflower Café on Main Street, scheduled to open this April.


Watch this space for a new destination restaurant.

Now Sklansky has upped the ante by purchasing the property at 404 Main in Catskill. She plans to lure another destination restaurant for the 2500-square-foot ground floor, and develop the rest of the building in other interesting ways to be determined. By investing her own money and creativity on behalf of the town’s development, Sklansky underscores her belief in and commitment to Catskill’s potential—and helps bring that potential closer. We wish her, her new building and the town every success.

In yesterday’s Daily Mail, Catskill Village President Vincent Seeley is quoted as saying that he met with representatives of a casino developer to explore the possibility of building a casino in Catskill.

“Essentially, they reached out to me through contacts in the industry to set up a meeting,” Seeley said. “They were very, very interested in the Point.”

To his credit, Seeley acknowledges that a casino may not be the best possible route to Catskill’s future.

“Regardless of whether or not a casino is the right fit for our community, which is something we will ultimately decide as a community, we will use the information [from the casino representatives’ meeting] to make Catskill a more attractive place for development,” he said.


Credit: Nina Sklansky and the Catskill Action Team.

It could be argued that Catskill is already an attractive place for development, albeit of a very different kind. Catskill resident and advertising whiz Nina Sklansky and her Catskill Action Team are doing brilliant promotional work with their Catskill the Village campaign and website.

I can easily see Catskill evolving into a more down-to-earth and affordable version of Hudson, with plenty of restaurants and shops to attract visitors, and plenty of real-estate bargins to attract creative new residents. In fact, over time the Catskill-Hudson nexus could become a pocket “creative economy” somewhat like the towns of the Berkshires.

So the question is not really whether Catskill can come back, but how it should come back. A casino in Catskill seems a long shot, but if it happened the village and town would be profoundly transformed, and quickly. This transformation would probably not be for the better. The Catskill Action Team’s vision for the future seems far more likely to produce a happy outcome. If you’re interested in helping to make that happen, you can drop them a line here.

A December 4 article by Kyle Adams, one of the few local reporters I can stand to read, highlighted Greene County’s utter lack of progress in developing adequate broadband service. In fact, Greene’s record in this regard is so dismal that it warranted a visit from the federal government’s Government Accountability Office. The office is trying to determine the efficacy of the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Broadband Loan Program.

In Greene’s case, of course, that efficacy is non-existent. Zero. Zilch. This is true primarily because Mid-Hudson Cable (identified only as “a small telecommunications company” in Adams’s otherwise straightforward article) declined a Rural Utilities Service broadband loan.

According to Warren Hart, the County’s way-overdue-for-replacement director of Economic Development, Tourism and Planning, Mid-Hudson declined the federal loan because of “the high administrative burden involved”. “It was just too much for this small company,” Hart said.

Warren Hart points out a vast expanse of nothing.
Warren Hart points to a vast expanse of nothing.
Photo credit: Kyle Adams/Columbia-Greene Media.

As someone who recently paid Mid-Hudson several thousand dollars to run a cable to my house, I’d maintain that Mid-Hudson calculated it would be more profitable to continue its business as usual, where extending service to anyone not served under the sweetheart town contracts it’s negotiated requires that hapless new customer to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Hart went on to lament that the county’s scanty broadband infrastructure is a handicap compared to more urban counties (as though this were just a geographic fact of life, and not a consequence of decisions made or not made by the county’s business and political leadership). He was joined in his hand-wringing by Jeff Friedman, executive director of the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce, another organization not noted for its succcessful track record.

I’m not sure which is worse: the continued false promises of improved broadband service from Congressman Chris Gibson on down to politicos at the local level, or the continued absence of said broadband service, with no improvements on the horizon.

Wait, though—Warren Hart has a plan. “Plan A,” he said, is to marry wireless broadband Internet service to the emergency communications towers planned throughout the county. The first such tower, at Windham Mountain, is expected to be completed in spring 2014. It is being constructed to improve emergency communications, though, not to provide broadband service. Hart nevertheless “hopes it will” provide broadband service.

No Plan B was mentioned.

In a fawning puff piece in the February 7 Daily Mail, it was announced that Jeff Friedman has been appointed Executive Director of the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Friedman has had previous experience working for Hunter Mountain, and as an independent real estate developer and a car salesman. His appointment comes approximately 3 months after the previous director resigned, charging the chamber’s board with various conflicts of interest.

Friedman mouthed several platitudes about what he wants his new job to be (“My main goal is to grown the chamber exponentially, grow membership exponentially, grow its influence and grow its ability to help the businesses in the county do more business….”) but he will be a creature of the board of directors, controlled by Tom Fucito and Kathleen McQuaid, whose questionable decisions and behavior led to the vacancy in the first place.

It’s interesting, for example, that Friedman talks about the need for a new chamber website, which the chamber paid McQuaid some $12,000 to develop only last year. Now it needs modernizing? Will McQuaid be “hired” to do that as well, or will the work finally be put out for competitive bid, as it should have been in the first place?

“I am very anxious to get started,” Friedman said. Well, let’s see what you can do, Jeff. The local business community should be be watching closely.

Now that we know U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson is going to be around for another couple of years, it’s time to take a look at what he’s been up to lately. In addition to voting “Yes” on legislation to avert the “fiscal cliff” (having earlier renounced his pledge to never raise taxes), Gibson sent a recent email to constituents outlining what he says are his top priorities.

These are (taken from the email):

1) “Address our country’s future fiscal solvency and enact policies that grow our economy and help hardworking Americans.” Sounds reasonable, if rather generic. Are further attacks on Social Security and Medicare subsumed in that “future fiscal solvency” phrase?

2) “Pass into law a full five-year farm bill that gives certainty to our family farms and allows them to remain a vibrant part of our local communities.” This speaks to the Representative’s constituency, but does little to address economic growth in the 19th Congressional District per se.

3) Lyme Disease.

4) Expanding access to broadband.

5) “Ensuring our veterans have the services and benefits they need….”

Which of these things is not like the others?

If you answered “Lyme Disease,” kudos to you. Lyme Disease has been rampant in upstate New York for a while now—that horse has left the barn. Combating its effects is a worthy thing to do, but perhaps not a top priority for a U.S. Congressman in an economically slumping district. As for expanding access to broadband, that too is a worthy goal, and something that would actually be of great economic benefit. It would be terrific if Gibson actually did something to address it this term, as opposed to holding meaningless symposia on the topic.

Except for the broadband item, which addresses economic growth indirectly, Gibson does not include improving the local economy as one of his top priorities. (Item no. 1 above is national in scope, and too generic to count.) That seems shortsighted, to say the least. But, it’s very early in the new year, and in Gibson’s new term. Let’s see what he does to address what he says are his priorities, paying particular attention to his efforts to expand access to broadband in the district.

After last Friday’s horrific event in Connecticut, America badly needs a massive infusion of good news. We don’t have that. However, statements by the president and others, vowing to prevent a recurrence of Newtown, seem to be at least a tentative step in the right direction. Let’s see what the NRA has to say on Friday, and let’s hope that the majority of Americans’ outrage at our lax guns laws continues to push politicians for change.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I’m happy to report a little good news on a less important topic (although it’s a topic of consequence for our local economy). You may have read a recent, eyebrow-raising Daily Mail article by Kyle Adams, which raised questions about ethical conduct at the local chamber of commerce. I’ve also covered the issue. Well, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden has stepped in to remove one serious conflict of interest at the chamber. A county employee had been named to be the next board chairperson—thanks to Mr. Groden, that will not be happening.

Other ethical issues remain to be resolved at the chamber, and those will continue to be pursued. For now, though, a hearty shout-out to Shaun Groden for a job well done.

Today’s Daily Mail article on the ongoing ethical issues at the local chamber of commerce does not serve readers well. Kyle Adams may turn out to be a decent reporter, but today’s story bears the heavy hand of his paper’s repressive management—the same management castigated by no less an authority than the Columbia Journalism Review for the exodus of several young reporters recently.

This story is a whitewash. It trivializes ethical violations serious enough to warrant the chamber executive director’s resignation, and casts them in a neutral he-said, she-said light to indicate this is merely an internal flap, and therefore much ado about nothing. My wife, the executive director who resigned, is inaccurately painted as a disgruntled employee. Her antagonist, Kathleen McQuaid, the chamber board of directors chairperson and a person in serious conflict with the chamber’s own ethical guidelines, is allowed to sum up the article by stating, outrageously, that “everything is as it should be”.

Whitewash
The Daily Mail: covering up problems, preserving the status quo.

Everything is NOT as it should be. What part of “ethics violation” does the reporter—or the chamber’s chairperson—not understand?

The chamber has both Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest Disclosure documents that board members are supposed to sign. The Code of Ethics document should be self-explanatory, but apparently is not. It outlines examples of what would constitute ethical violations, including “self interests relating to financial gains” and “bias relating to personal associates,” among many others. McQuaid and vice chair Tom Fucito are in violation on both counts—both bill the chamber for their professional services, and both were instrumental in the disastrous hiring of the barely there employee Doug Calkins, an associate of Fucito’s.

Yet McQuaid says she signed the Conflict of Interest Disclosure form, so everything is OK. The board approved her ethics violations, in other words. Were the jobs that McQuaid’s firm performed for the chamber put out for bid? No, she admits, stating that such work “does not necessarily have to be.” But what is the alternative to putting such work out for competitive bidding? Simple: the board member (McQuaid) will simply perform the work herself and bill for it. See above re, Code of Ethics & self interests relating to financial gains. This is not rocket science, folks.

Oh, and McQuaid goes on to note that she would just love to "donate" all her work to the chamber, but she is not a wealthy person. How altruistic of her.

Among the many, many other things wrong with this story:

- Was it ever determined whether or not McQuaid signed the chamber’s Code of Ethics? It doesn’t make a lot of difference at this point, but it would be interesting (and relevant) to know.

- How is it that vice chair Tom Fucito’s billing of the chamber was left out of the story? He, like McQuaid, has drawn money out of the chamber for services rendered—accounting services, in his case.

- Why did the story not note that both McQuaid and Fucito plan to continue on the board (and, one assumes, plan to continue billing the chamber)?

- Why did the story not mention that a new chairperson is scheduled to take office soon, and that this person comes with a built-in conflict of interest? I am referring to Karl Heck, a Greene County employee who administers a number of grant programs. Some of these programs are directly relevant to the chamber’s small-business membership. At least one concerned citizen (not me, and not my wife) has written to Greene County Administrator Shaun S. Groden expressing concern about this arrangement.

Adams did contact Groden, who was completely noncommittal and gave no indication he plans to do anything about the situation. Nevertheless, Adams should have noted the fact in his story. Feel free to drop Groden a line; his email address is linked above. Or, you could email the county’s Board of Ethics at ethics@discovergreene.com, though I can’t guarantee you’ll receive a response.

The Daily Mail had a chance to do something constructive here: a pretty straightforward set of ethical problems could have been highlighted, the better to resolve them in service to the community at large. Instead, the paper deliberately misconstrued the situation and closed with an outrageously misleading “everything is as it should be” summary, in a story with many glaring omissions. It’s yet another example of preserving the status quo at all costs.

The reading public deserves far better.

In addition to a piece on a marriage boomlet in Las Vegas (because today’s date will be so easily remembered), the New York Times has a more serious story today which has direct relevance to virtually everyone on the Mountain Top, if not Greene County as a whole. The story is headed, "Climate Change Threatens Ski Industry, Leaving Slopes Bare," and that headline pretty much says it all.

The story notes several predictions by the Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Among them: by 2039, New York State’s 36 ski resorts will have shrunk to 9.

Will Hunter Mountain and/or Windham Mountain be among them? And if not, what will take their place in the already under-performing local economy?

It’s not too soon to begin thinking about this, folks. The likely loss of the county’s major economic drivers could be viewed as catastrophic—or it could be viewed as an opportunity, because we do have time to plan ahead. Perhaps, with the right leadership in place, Greene can develop a new, more varied economy that outperforms the current one.

We’ve been hammering away at local problems large and small for some time now, to little avail. People and organizations you might expect to respond don’t. Silence remains the rule of thumb, although whispers of support come in via email and other means. For the most part, though, “going along to get along” remains in full force here in Greene County. No one wants to make waves, no one wants to speak out. Which means, ultimately, that no one wants to change things. Or if they do, they haven’t yet mustered the courage to say so.

It occurs to us, perhaps belatedly, that a much larger problem overlaps and encompasses our intractable local issues, and helps in part to explain them. I’m talking about the notoriously dysfunctional New York State government, otherwise known as Albany Politics. Frequently called the most broken and corrupt state government in the country (see any number of news reports, see the historical documentation in the novels of William Kennedy), Albany is famous for being bad. Downstaters have railed against Albany for years, to little avail. The economically powerful City of New York has managed to bypass, ignore or overcome Albany’s corruption and pettiness in many ways, but the crazy political scene in our state capital definitely has negative ramifications for those of us who live upstate.

NY State Capitol Building
The NY State Capitol Building—not a good example for local business and government.

Take the current case of the “Independent Democratic Conference,” headed by one Jeff Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx. This is a naked power grab, pure and simple. It is also a sell-out of the Democratic Party electorate—after all, Democratic candidates won 33 seats in the State Senate this year, compared to 30 Republicans. Yet the five members of the IDC have elected to side with the GOP and share power in the State Senate. This is truly reprehensible, particularly when you have genuinely progressive, new and enthusiastic candidates like Cecilia Tkaczyk running for Senate office in the belief they can make a difference (she may yet pull out a victory).

A spokesman for the Senate Democrats summed up the situation this way:

“This is not a coalition but a coup against all New Yorkers who voted for Democratic control of the Senate and a progressive state government. Sadly, the real victims of today’s announcement are the people of our state, whose clearly expressed desire for progress on a host of issues will now be scuttled. Senate Democrats will remain fierce advocates for them and the issues New Yorkers want to see implemented like standing up for women’s health, passing real campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage and enacting common sense gun laws.”

No wonder it’s so hard to make a dent in the status quo around here.

Up until a few weeks ago, my wife was Executive Director of something called the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce. That unwieldy name is an attempt at re-branding the Greene County Chamber of Commerce, and the transition is going slowly and not exactly according to plan. The struggles of the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce (quite a mouthful, isn’t it?) are in no way linked to my wife’s role there, however. Quite the contrary, in fact—Barbara did everything she could to make what was only a so-so idea work.

The Chamber’s struggles have been caused by what would seem to be shoddy planning and execution on the part of its board of directors, particularly the chair and vice chair, and by some serious ethical lapses. It was the combination of these factors, along with punitive actions that were taken after Barbara blew the whistle on an improper and wasteful allocation of chamber funds, that led her to resign.

The ethical issues remain a very serious problem. And at a time when Catskill and the county need all the economic support and expertise they can get, the chamber’s ethically compromised leadership is a hindrance rather than a help.

Chamber Headerquarters
The chamber’s office in Catskill—not much help for Main Street.

The problems were first apparent during my wife’s interview process. The position was originally described as President and CEO of the (then Greene County) chamber, but by the time Barbara accepted the job it had been “downsized” to the Executive Director title. This freed up funds which, it turned out, allowed the vice chair, Tom Fucito, to hire one of his acquaintances for a no-show position. Barbara was of course appalled by this, but Fucito and board chair Kathleen McQuaid persuaded her to give the arrangement a chance. The result: my wife did all the work the original position required, while collecting a fraction of what her predecessor was paid.

The no-show appointee, one Doug Calkins, took six weeks’ paid leave in the eight months he was on board. During this time, he reported what could only have comprised a few hours’ work each month, which mostly consisted of things like phone calls or making appointments or the occasional meeting. He was not required to come to the chamber office, nor did he regularly have to account for the time he spent on chamber business. For this, he was paid a full month’s salary. Everyone in the chamber office was aware of Calkins’s special, no-show job status, and of course they resented it. But, they were afraid to speak out.

This went on for eight months, as noted. Barbara protested in several emails to McQuaid. Finally she had enough, and confronted Facito over the Calkins issue at a chamber board meeting. Once the actual facts were on the table (six weeks’ paid time off in eight months, an hourly wage that amounted to well over $250 an hour for the time spent, etc.), the board had no choice but to ask Calkins to resign. The excuse for this sorry episode? We hired him too soon, before there was enough work for him to do. (His “work”, by the way, was supposed to be as a “Community Liaison”—a title Barbara concocted out of thin air when no one knew what to call the new position.)

Once Facito and McQuaid had been embarrassed in front of the rest of the board, the proverbial shit hit the fan: Barbara was placed on probation and threatened with immediate termination if she ever opened her mouth about chamber improprieties again. What’s more, she was handed a five-page document by McQuaid that added considerably to her already substantial job responsibilities, including subsidiary tasks such as receptionist duties. This was pure harassment, punishment for blowing the whistle on Calkins. There was no longer any way she could hope to do her job properly, so she resigned.

Even with Calkins gone, the chamber is riddled with ethical compromises. The organization has a formal Code of Ethics, which states in part that board members “are expected to embody such values as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness….” Further, it defines conflicts of interest as including “self interest relating to financial gains.” Both McQuaid and Fucito are in flagrant violation of this.

The Chamber also has a Conflict of Interest disclosure form; I have no idea whether McQuaid or Fucito has signed it, or if so, what their explanation could have been.

McQuaid’s company has received some $12,000 for website and design work during 2012; she apparently told my wife it had “been promised to her” (in exchange for serving as the board chair). Certainly no bids were put out for this work. And shortly before Barbara resigned, Fucito submitted a $525 accounting invoice for preparation of chamber taxes (in contrast to the pro bono accounting work which had been done previously). Documentation exists for both the McQuaid and Fucito invoices, BTW.

A chamber of commerce is supposed to support and assist local business. This is especially true in times of steep recession, such as we’ve experienced since 2008. Our local chamber has done just the opposite, with ethically challenged board members siphoning off money that could have (and should have) gone to local businesses, and with a no-show, no-work employee who drained the chamber’s bank account to no good purpose. And more ethical conflicts lie ahead: both McQuaid and Fucito plan to remain on the board next year, and McQuaid’s replacement as chairperson is slated to be a county employee who manages the grant programs that benefit small businesses which make up the bulk of chamber membership. Another built-in conflict.

When people like Vince Seeley and others are working strenuously and honestly to bring Main Street, Catskill and Greene County back from the brink, we can’t afford a Chamber of Commerce that’s moving in the opposite direction. The chamber needs to be cleaned up, now. McQuaid and Fucito should resign from the board at once, and the next chair should be a reputable local business person, not a county employee.

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