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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 24, 2009
Frozen assets: Will tourist dollars flow to the Hilltowns once again?
By Zach Simeone
HILLTOWNS Current and former Hilltown residents, near and far, are beginning to work on a plan to boost the local economy by attracting more visitors to experience the natural beauty and history of the Hilltowns, and, in turn, support local businesses.
Through a flurry of e-mails, Harold Miller has begun building a network of individuals interested in assembling an association of Hilltown farmers and businessmen that would act as a virtual chamber of commerce for the Hilltowns. This association would work towards three objectives:
Organizing a Hilltowns farmers market that would rotate weekly among each of the Hilltowns;
Creating a brochure that would list farms and activities in the Hilltowns; and
Suggesting tour routes to places of interest in the Hilltowns.
The weekly farmers’ market would be part of what Miller calls a “Hilltowns Weekend,” he said.
“And that would be at the park pavilions, and it would change on a rotating basis, in each of the Hilltowns,” said Miller. “There would be flea markets, people selling their crafts, food for sale, and so on, but the farmers’ market would be the big attraction.”
Miller grew up in Berne, and now lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, about 1,000 miles south of the American border. He is retired, and has been working for several years on a website, www.AlbanyHilltowns.com, dedicated to the natural and military history and the genealogy of the Hilltowns.
“My folks had a dairy farm between East Berne and Berne,” said Miller. He is one of nine children.
“Half of them live on five-acre lots that were broken off from the farm,” Miller said of his brothers and sisters, “and they’re right along in a row, in sight of the old farmhouse.”
Miller does not wish to bring in high volumes of tourists the way Lake George and Woodstock do.
“My thought was, if we can get, in each hamlet, a historic district, one café or restaurant, one antiques store, one guest house and all in existing buildings that would be a big accomplishment,” Miller told The Enterprise. “I’m not going to push for anything more than that.”
Through his e-mails, Miller has gotten support from planners and politicians alike, and the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville plans to host an organizational meeting for the proposed business association this spring, according to Chad Jemison, director of the Huyck Preserve.
“It will likely be in the early afternoon of Saturday, April 17th, 2010, following an Earth Day volunteer trail-building event at the Huyck Preserve,” Jemison told The Enterprise, though an official date has not been set.
Miller thinks that this endeavor will ultimately lead to the preservation of open space, in addition to the economic benefits he anticipates.
“One of the reasons why visitors come is because of the beautiful scenery,” Miller said. “They want to come up here and they want to see the farmland; they want to see the waterfalls; the creeks; they want to go into the mountains; they want the beauty of the Hilltowns. And, if we destroy that beauty with modernizing old buildings, if the Hilltowns are broken up into five-acre lots, that takes away the reason for people to come there. I think people will say, ‘Hey, we could do well with visitors; we should preserve the farms.’”
While Miller’s efforts from afar have helped move this initiative forward, the idea of using low-impact tourism to boost the economy is not a new concept.
Daniel Driscoll read Miller’s Nov. 19 letter to the Enterprise editor about tourism, and responded with a letter of his own.
Driscoll has been a member of the Knox Planning Board for close to 35 years, and was appointed just one year after the town’s first zoning ordinance was adopted. He also helped create its comprehensive plan.
Driscoll suggested to Miller that Jemison and the Huyck Preserve might be interested in facilitating the creation of a chamber of commerce for the Hilltowns.
“This was something that the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Committee recommended back when we published the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide,” Driscoll told The Enterprise. Driscoll was chairman of that committee.
“The basis of our recommendation is that, as I said in my letter, recreational activities are gentle on the environment, and are key in encouraging economic development,” Driscoll went on. “Some other recommendations included having floating zones that would allow things like bicycle repair shops to be sited at key points, or other things that would service Hilltown recreation activities.”
The guide, published in 2002, was created to encourage appropriate land use and development in the Helderbergs. The guide was co-edited by Driscoll and Lindsay Childs, a longtime planning leader in Guilderland.
“In the later 19th century, with the onset of the Victorian era and its increased emphasis on recreational pursuits, the escarpment region became attractive for reasons beyond farming, logging, and scientific study,” the planning guide reads. “It became a major destination for all manner of hikers, daytrippers, picnickers, and general outdoor enthusiasts.”
Many of these people, the guide says, came from urban areas, like Albany, arriving by train at Meadowdale Station below the Helderbergs. These tourists, as it were, would then hike their way up Indian Ladder Road to the top of the escarpment.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Helderbergs became a popular summer-vacation spot. Wealthier travelers built summer homes there, taking in the view, and many hotels, inns, and camps at Thompsons and Warners lakes housed those less wealthy.
Today, that culture has mostly faded away, though John Boyd Thacher Park, established in 1914, is visited by thousands annually.
In addition to Driscoll, Miller has had correspondence with Nan Stolzenburg, founder of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, and a certified planner who has worked extensively in the Hilltowns, most recently being hired by Berne to help revise its comprehensive land-use plan. In her work, Stolzenburg has facilitated the planning process in municipalities that have worked agricultural tourism, or agri-tourism, into their economies.
“I think the kind of idea [Miller] is promoting is to understand what Berne has to offer as far as the outdoors, farming, the Fox Creek, and find ways to use that to the economic advantage of the town,” Stolzenburg said.
Stolzenburg, who lives just across the border from Berne in the town of Wright, thinks that it would serve Miller’s initiative if his ideas were considered by Berne’s comprehensive planning committee.
“That really would be the context that the idea would move forward in,” said Stolzenburg. “This idea of tourism is just one component of a much larger evaluation of the town.”
Many municipalities, she went on, have found ways of integrating different forms of tourism, whether they be recreational or agricultural, into their comprehensive plans.
“Agricultural tourism is a big one,” Stolzenburg said, defining agricultural tourism as “where you would have some sort of farm operation that invites the public in to buy their products and see how their operation works. This could be a U-pick operation, a dude ranch, farm tours, greenhouse plant growers, specialty farms.”
Wellington’s Herbs and Spices in Schoharie is one such operation.
“They grow herbs and have a gift shop; that’s part of an agricultural-tourist operation,” Stolzenburg said. “They bring the public to them to sell their product on the site.”
These fields of flavor sit atop a hill with a view of the Schoharie Valley; the Hilltowns offer a wealth of visual pleasures as well, which is a point of pride among many Hilltowners.
Kinderhook also uses agri-tourism in the way that Miller envisions it in the Hilltowns. According to www.ILoveNY.com, the official website for tourism in New York State, “Agriculture now plays a large part in Kinderhook’s economy with several pick-your-own farms and farmers’ markets that offer produce from spring to fall.”
Moreover, the town of Chatham has been looking at agri-tourism opportunities, Stolzenburg said, and she was involved in developing a comprehensive plan for Lewis County, which had “a huge component” related to economic bolstering by tourism.
“Bike trails, hike trails, access to ponds, creeks, scenic views those can all be used for enhancing visitation,” Stolzenburg said. “The access to Partridge Run is probably a huge draw that is underutilized,” she said of the wildlife gaming preserve in Berne.
Miller and Stolzenburg discussed via e-mail building a trail in one of his many e-mails: “Berne should consider a trail from the top of Cole Hill at the Long Trail, and down the hill somewhere, and along the tree line on the east side of the Cole Hill Valley, across the Fox Creek at the bridge on Cole Hill Road, and up the old Camp Orinsekwa Lane, and along the west side of Warners Lake, and on to some of the land preserves in Knox,” Miller wrote.
“I think it’s a terrific idea,” Stolzenburg told The Enterprise. “Several years ago, Berne made a plan to connect the East Berne hamlet and those businesses with the Long Path and visitors that come to Warner’s Lake and Thacher Park.” The Long Path runs from the George Washington Bridge outside of New York City through the Catskills and Helderbergs to Altamont, and is envisioned to one day stretch to the Adirondacks.
“I would certainly recommend that,” Stolzenburg said of connecting to the Long Path. “It’s great for the people who live there, and an opportunity to draw people in to the town. They finished that plan, the town board accepted it, and they haven’t implemented those aspects of it.”
Despite the potential benefits of such an undertaking, Stolzenburg thinks that there are both pros and cons to consider.
“Tourism is always a double-edged sword,” she said. “Does it mean more traffic on the roads? For someone who lives on a sleepy back road that gets five cars a day, it could be a big change.”
Stolzenburg cites Cooperstown as a prime example of a municipality where tourism may have adverse effects on the residents’ quality of life, though the Baseball Hall of Fame brings a much higher volume of visitors into Cooperstown than Miller hopes to bring the Hilltowns.
“The other thing is, you go to areas like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where tourism developed around the Amish,” Stolzenburg went on. “That really spurred a whole lot of growth. Everything from hotels, motels, malls, shopping outlets; there are parts of it that are very developed. In Berne, I don’t think it would take that route. I think they have a lot to offer, and I think a lot of upstate rural communities are not taking advantage of the economic development they could have, but I don’t think we’d be overrun with tourists.”
But, in the end, it will be up to the community to decide if having more visitors even in low volumes is worth the economic growth, she said.
Driscoll, a Hilltown resident himself, does not believe there would be any negative effects from recreational tourism.
“I don’t see any cons to it at all, as long as there’s economic development and protection to our environment,” Driscoll said. “When you see the planning guide, you’ll see we were observing the amount of visitors to the Hilltowns was increasing anyway. I think that the main thing that would happen as a result of trying to encourage recreational activities would be development of the commercial activity associated with servicing the recreational visitors.”
Hilltown supervisors have expressed to The Enterprise their support of such a plan.
“It sounds like a very interesting idea,” said Knox Supervisor Michael Hammond. “It’s going to take a great deal of cooperation on the part of the people in these types of buildings, but, if someone would like to spearhead something like this, it might be very possible.”
Hammond mentioned one periodic gathering on the property of the town’s assessor, Russ Pokorny, that draws people into Knox.
“One thing that has already been done is the activities at the Octagon Barn,” Hammond said, “where people come together with their crafts and their goods and trades, and can expose themselves all in harmony with what is going on in the Hilltowns.”
Rensselaerville’s supervisor-elect, Marie Dermody, expressed a similar sentiment this week.
“I would definitely support such an initiative,” Dermody said. “It sounds like a do-able project with substantial positive effects. However, I would want to see how things develop before committing to any role in facilitating such an endeavor, and I would want to be sure that the people living and working in the targeted area are fully behind these efforts.”
Kevin Crosier, Berne’s supervisor who will be leaving office at the start of the New Year, said he had hoped for such an initiative since his first day in office nearly eight years ago.
“Promoting what we have, which is our rich natural resources, is a way of rejuvenating the economy,” Crosier said. “What we take for granted every day is our greatest asset. Partridge Run, the Cole Hill Preserve, the Center for Wisdom and Compassion those are the kinds of things we want to tout. It’s what we have that will generate revenue for businesses. Snowmobiling is a major revenue stream in the winter,” he said.
Crosier also emphasized the opportunity in the Big Backyard Program, a recreational leasing program that allows landowners to rent their land to private individuals for activities like hunting and fishing.
“This is being done successfully throughout the state,” Crosier said. “Say a family wants to camp on a piece of property for two weeks, or a guy wants to deer hunt; this is the kind of thing you want in the Hilltowns because it brings people in.”
Crosier has a similar arrangement with a friend: “I have a doctor who comes to my house to fish in my pond and go bird hunting,” Crosier said. “I don’t charge him, because he’s simply a friend, but he’s told me before he would gladly pay for the privilege.”
The advantage to doing this kind of business, Crosier said, is that landowners in the Hilltowns have already made the investment.
“They have the land; they have the trails; they have the bodies of water,” Crosier said. “There’s a lot of spendable income in Bethlehem, Colonie, Loudonville people who would love to come enjoy what you take for granted, and, at the end of the day, go home.”