What You See is What We Got
Alright. So Phoenicia won’t be getting
a new septic treatment plant. That’s what its property
owners voted for; it was their choice and no one else’s.
Now that they’ve made it, what will it mean for the future?
No one knows for sure, and we’d frankly prefer not to
tell you our view, since we try, wherever possible, to accentuate
the positive. But it’s probably better just to get it
over with, so here goes.
Okay, so no public bathrooms in Phoenicia’s future. Well,
we’ve gotten by without them for a long time. And STS
won’t be physically expanding into some sort of major
regional theatre or anything. But, you know, it’s community
theatre and we love it in whatever space they have and porta-potties
aren’t so bad when you really gotta go. And the library
should be OK. Yeah, well, a bigger library facility would have
been nice too but maybe not as cozy. Sweet Sue’s? Sure,
it would have been good if she could have expanded but that’s
not happening now either. Of course the condemned Phoenicia
Hotel building crumbling into dust…Okay, that prospect’s
even more depressing than the place was open in its final years.
And just as sad is the fate of the long-quiet Riverwalk project
for Phoenicia’s commercial redevelopment which has gone
from dormant to dead, along with its 210 planned parking spaces.
Also now gone is the prospect of utility lines moved underground,
new sidewalks, pathways, seating and lighting, and who knows
how many other things that won’t get built or rebuilt.
By our rough count, the no-vote in the referendum February 3
cost Phoenicia between $25 and $30 million in direct investment,
public and private, in the hamlet’s infrastructure and
short-term development. That a lot of money for a small place
to have committed to it and then lose, around $80,000 or $90,000
for each and every household and business in the hamlet. By
comparison, that’s more than twice the money that’s
now invested in the old IBM facilities in Kingston, and that’s
a good-sized project by anyone’s standards. Some of course
are saying don’t worry, the City will be back with another
offer but we don’t think so. It took them 80 years to
give Phoenicia a second chance at municipal wastewater treatment
and we doubt the issue will see a third coming anytime soon.
Will everything be OK? We don’t know. But the prospects
for meaningful economic development in Phoenicia have just gone
from very good to somewhere south of fair. Will there still
be opportunities? Of course. But the upside potential for any
of them will now be considerably smaller. Because when the future
of any town’s business district hinges on one toilet at
a time passing muster in an increasingly tightening regulatory
environment, what you see now is, more or less, what the future
holds. Some are OK with this, others disappointed including
us. We’d imagined Phoenicia as a thriving local business
district and a major visitor destination in the future and now
neither one seems terribly likely.
What’s hard about seeing all this disappear is that this
kind of hamlet-based redevelopment is the one thing almost everyone
agreed was desirable throughout our long and difficult comprehensive
planning process. As a town, we can plan all we want for Phoenicia,
but when the hamlet votes to be the one place in the Catskills
that time forgot, that’s it’s future. It’s
our fervent hope that somehow time will prove us wrong on this.
We’re not going to do a detailed post-mortem on what happened,
everyone’s got their own explanations and almost everyone’s
partially right. But the sewer project didn’t fail because
most people in Phoenicia didn’t want centralized septic
treatment for the hamlet. Most of them did, whichever way they
voted. Many who voted against it said they did so because they
wanted a better deal from the City. That’s easy to understand.
We’ve been fighting for that for years and the town’s
wastewater committee probably did do the best they could, given
the total lack of support for that position from the watershed’s
political leadership. Unfortunately, any prospect of a better
deal wasn’t what was on the ballot.
But the unfortunate truth is our town government did a poor
job of communicating the answers people needed to the questions
that were raised. Some of the most important answers didn’t
arrive in residents’ mailboxes until just days before
the vote. People were given assurance the system’s operating
costs wouldn’t exceed a fixed amount, but not that their
own bills wouldn’t rise by more than a fixed amount. In
short, confusion reigned that could have been reigned in, and
of course some things were said that simply weren’t true
or relevant and which frightened people. And when people are
afraid, any change seems scary and they’ll vote most every
time for the devil they know over whatever option they don’t
fully understand. But regardless, it’s never easy to get
people to think about the long-term future when the short-term
issues are unclear. And further compounding the issue was what
one resident publicly characterized as a lack of trust for the
board. Justified or not, that feeling was evident months in
advance of the vote, and only intensified as it grew closer.
To those who say the project failed because it “became
political,” we disagree. People who both favored and opposed
it came from both sides and the middle of Shandaken’s
political spectrum. Everyone’s views were their own and
party affiliation or political perspective played little part.
Trust in some of our elected officials? Well, yeah, that was
a big issue.
In the short term now, we’re hopeful that CWC will quickly
make available funding for a septic maintenance district, so
that at least home and business owners will have a mechanism
available to refurbish their existing systems as required. Beyond
that and for now, we’re just looking for a solid snow
cover to protect the water mains from freezing and come Spring,
some clear thinking about infrastructure for the rest of the
town. Hoping everybody’s keeping warm… BP