Tourism Challenge in a Changing Market for Local Merchants

Parking, Comprehensive Plan improvements could help

By Ron Soodalter

The effort to bring back a bicycling event to Cold Spring, spearheaded by Putnam County Tourism Director Libby Pataki, underscores the many issues involved in the question of tourism’s possibilities and problems. Philipstown.info asked several people to comment on tourism from a variety of perspectives. Centered on Cold Spring, where most of the town’s tourism activity takes place, this is the first part of the report.

Changing market

Endowed with a large share of natural beauty, Cold Spring offers a wide range of options and activities for visitors. People come for the arts and culture, the history and the outdoor activities. The most immediate attractions are the shops and galleries on Main Street — and foremost among these have been the antiques stores. For years, visitors have been drawn to Cold Spring for the antiques.

Since the late 1990s, a billboard stood on Route 9, advertising the village’s “25 Antiques Shops.” The sign was knocked down during Hurricane Sandy, which was perhaps appropriate, since Cold Spring no longer offers anywhere near that number — the most optimistic estimate is 14 — and many locals have commented that the inventory at the remaining shops doesn’t reflect the quality of past years.

Dave Cooke of Cold Spring Antiques Center (Photo by J. Tao)
Dave Cooke of Cold Spring Antiques Center (Photo by J. Tao)

Dave Cooke, proprietor of the Cold Spring Antiques Center and co-founder of the Cold Spring Merchants Association, points to three determining factors for the decline. “Eighteen years ago,” said Cooke, “antiques were hot and heavy. People were building collections — Coca Cola signs, art glass, whatever. Everybody loved antiques.”

Eventually, he explained, the collections passed to their children, who have shown little or no desire to maintain or grow them. And for those who choose to furnish their homes with period furniture, the ready availability of well-made, reasonably priced reproductions has wreaked havoc on the sale of fine antique pieces.

The advent of eBay in the late ’90s, combined with the monumental role computers now play in our daily lives, has all but eliminated the need to leave the house to shop for antiques. As a result, the stores and antique fairs have taken a major hit. For years, Cooke was the moving force behind the Cold Spring Antiques Show, a highly touted outdoor event that drew dealers, pickers and collectors alike. Increasingly, the ranks of both buyers and sellers thinned, to the point where the show is no longer viable.

Leonora Burton came to Cold Spring from her native Wales 28 years ago and has owned and operated the Country Goose ever since. She agreed with Cooke’s analysis, adding, “People today don’t seem interested in anything that isn’t readily disposable.”

Leonora Burton of the Country Goose (Photo by J. Tao)
Leonora Burton of the Country Goose (Photo by J. Tao)

She wistfully recalled the Cold Spring Galleries, which conducted twice-monthly Monday auctions at the foot of Main Street. “Previews were on Sunday, and they would draw people by the hundreds. Main Street filled up, and I could pay my bills for a month just from the business I did on preview day.” When the auction gallery moved to Beacon in 1992, the revenue went with it.

The antiques shops are not alone in seeing a challenge to their business. “In the beginning,” Burton recalled, “we mainly sold kitchenware and specialized in gift baskets. Then Wal-Mart opened up, undercutting my prices; ever since, my business has focused mainly on the gift baskets. We’re holding our own, but our customers now are mainly over 40. People still come to shop, but not like before. Younger people will come in, see something they like, take a picture of it with their iPhone and order it online for less money. Recently, I threw a man out of my store for trying to photograph a postcard of Bannerman’s Island, rather than pay the 65 cents!”

Burton said that a number of high-end suppliers, such as Crabtree & Evelyn, are no longer filling local orders, preferring to sell their products directly in such mega-shopping centers as Woodbury Common. In order to cope with current trends, a number of business owners, including Cooke and Burton, have gone online to enhance their trade. “We use the social media,” said Burton, “including Facebook, to get people interested.”

Teri Barr of Hudson Valley Outfitters (Photo by Jeanne Tao)
Teri Barr of Hudson Valley Outfitters (Photo by Jeanne Tao)

Some change is evident. Barbara Galazzo, local resident, artist and recent founder of Main Street’s Gallery 66 NY, commented, “This gallery used to be a beautiful little bookstore, until Barnes and Noble and Borders opened up. The bookstore simply couldn’t compete.” Looking ahead, she said, “It’s known that Beacon has a lot of art galleries. Now, with more than one in the village, as well as exhibitions at Boscobel and Garrison, Cold Spring can become a destination for art collectors as well.”

Cold Spring Mayor Seth Gallagher sees art galleries as “a new thing, important to the village. They appeal to both weekend and evening traffic, and are good for locals and visitors alike.” Michael Armstrong, chairman of the Special Board for a Comprehensive Plan, agreed: “The artist community is growing as more galleries open their doors.”

As Teri Barr, long-time owner of Hudson Valley Outfitters, sees it, “We’re getting as many people as always, but the amount of money they have to spend has changed dramatically.” Barr established her business on the sale of outdoor clothing and equipment to hikers and kayakers, the promotion of guided river tours, and the sale of kayaks.

According to Barr, sales have declined since 2008, which ironically was when kayaking went mainstream. “The market became flooded with kayaks, many of lesser quality — and lower prices — than those we offered.” Barr stopped selling kayaks and now focuses on retail clothing sales, boat rentals and river tours. “Rentals and tours continue strong, and we have a solid market of shoe sales to the local kids. We give personalized service, which is something the Internet can’t do. Still,” she said, “there’s less money in our pockets.”

Making things better

There is no lack of suggestions by the Main Street merchants when it comes to improving the appearance and services of Cold Spring, to make it more attractive to visitors. Many feel the village is looking rundown and could use a facelift. “The village could bury its phone and electric lines and address the issue of signage,” said Barr. “People already think this is a charming spot; sprucing it up can only make it better.”

Armstrong considers the current signage “God-awful” and inadequate, and encourages their revision for the sake of both appearance and function. Cold Spring’s Comprehensive Plan lists a number of areas in need of improvement, including consistent signage, better lighting and more “user-friendly” sidewalks and crosswalks.

According to Mayor Gallagher, a number of the issues listed in the 103-page plan are currently being addressed. “Between 20 and 25 percent of the suggestions made in the Comprehensive Plan are either implemented already or in the process. We have a big project going on for Main Street,” he added, “including handicap access and sidewalk repairs. It’s a million-dollar project and should take a few years to complete.”

The project is being funded on the federal level, and the plan needs to be approved and monitored by the federal Department of Transportation. “We must remember,” said Gallagher, “that we have a 19th-century Main Street, working hard to accommodate the 21st century. And while I welcome and support visitors coming here, my job as mayor is to represent the people who live here. I don’t want Cold Spring to turn into another New Hope (referring to a heavily tourist-oriented Pennsylvania town). It’s a tricky balance.”

Parking

Golden Age Adventure Travel brought 56 visitors to Cold Spring on Aug. 5, when the bus driver was issued a parking ticket.Photo by Mike Turton
Golden Age Adventure Travel brought 56 visitors to Cold Spring on Aug. 5, when the bus driver was issued a parking ticket. Photo by Mike Turton

One issue that strikes an almost universally sour note among merchants, residents and visitors alike is the parking situation. “If the merchants park on Main Street, there’s no room for visitors’ cars. And forget tour buses; buses come here from Stonecrop and Boscobel, and there are simply no provisions for them. One bus driver recently got a parking ticket for putting his bus in the only space he could find,” said Burton.

Regina Bei, co-owner of the 180-year-old Hudson House, concurred. “Everybody agrees it’s a problem. It’s awful for people to make the trip here only to get a ticket.”

“It’s unfortunate,” added Barr, “when the first person a visitor sees is the guy who swipes his tires with white chalk.”

Professional photographer Cali Gorevic observed, “Parking has become very challenging in the 12 years since I moved to Cold Spring. It used to be just tourist weekends that were so frustrating, but now it is a constant fact of life here. Is anyone addressing this problem?”

According to Pataki, the issue is, in fact, being addressed. “A task force is being put together as we speak to look into bus routes as an alternative to car traffic, to increase service to various points of interest in Philipstown. A park-and-ride service would greatly alleviate many of the parking issues in Cold Spring.”

A few years ago, Armstrong conducted an extensive study of the parking situation in the village and reports that he counted 2,500 spaces — enough, he feels, to accommodate the village’s parking requirements. He is a strong proponent of metered parking, both as a means of “maintaining order” and as a source of revenue.

“There are plenty of available spaces,” he stated. “They are just not being managed properly. The Metro-North lot has around 227 spaces; it represents a great, untapped resource. Although the lot fills up on weekdays, it offers lots of opportunity for parking on the weekends. Also,” Armstrong added, “a second lot east of the tracks would benefit both Metro-North and the village, by adding another 100 spaces.”

He pointed out that some parking is available near the playing field on Fair Street. Many visitors, however, feel this is beyond reasonable walking distance to Main Street. And there are no signs in the village to indicate that parking is available either on Fair Street or in the train lot.

Mayor Gallagher acknowledged that “there are not a lot of options regarding parking,” but he believes that space can usually be found somewhere in the village. He is, however, less sanguine on the subject of metered parking. “I’m willing to be convinced, but I personally would find it inconvenient.”

8 Responses to "Tourism Challenge in a Changing Market for Local Merchants"

  1. Tom Rolston   January 19, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Blah-blah-blah-blah blah. Articles close to this were written in 1985, 1990, 1995, etc. Always the same complaints: Parking, tickets, Walmart, the Internet. When are these shopkeepers going to learn? Adapt, change and get involved. When is the last time anybody did anything? The Chamber used to be the Main Street Chamber and they were active. Now the Chamber is ineffective and unresponsive. We are not an antiques village. Antiques are passe. People want Playstation 2. What are we doing about Dockside? Does anybody care out there? Bring back the Fall Festival. Stop complaining.

    • Patty Villanova   January 20, 2013 at 9:29 am

      I did not see Tom’s comments before I wrote mine, so I’d like to respond to some of the things he said as I don’t think he fully understands what’s happening with the retailers of Cold Spring as opposed to the restaurant owners.

      Small retailers like us face an entirely different set of problems than he does in his business. For one thing, people have to eat; they don’t have to buy antiques, jewelry, accessories or other gewgaws. So on days when most of us are lucky to make carfare, the restaurants seem to be doing at least a decent business, even in the harsh winter months.

      Don’t get me wrong — I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their success, and we retailers, to a great extent, rely on the eateries to attract people to the Village year round. We have a natural partnership, if you will. In the best circumstances, Main Street is almost like a large outdoor mall, people strolling around, having a bite to eat in between checking out our fabulous stores. Most of my customers are from out of town- NYC, Brooklyn and New Jersey. They come here to make a day of it and all of them love Cold Spring. They don’t come here for Play Station or other electronics they can buy on Amazon. They come here for the experience, something you can’t do online. That’s what we have to capitalize on and promote.

      To get back to our immediate problem which is a lack of shoppers: I am suggesting solutions that will benefit all of the business owners, restaurants and retailers alike. I believe Cold Spring is at a tipping point, it can go either way and there are no guarantees. Tom accuses the merchants of complaining and maybe we are; but what is the alternative? To keep our mouths shut and watch our businesses go down the tube?

      To the contrary, I am delighted that my colleagues are involved and engaged enough in the life of the Village that they are speaking out, writing letters and going to meetings. We have invested lots of money and hard work in our businesses and it did not come from the taxpayers. Many of us have second and third jobs in fact, trying to stay afloat, because we love what we do.

      I don’t think it’s too much to ask of our silent partners, aka, the Government, to re-invest some of our hard-earned money in a way that benefits us. After all, increased sales taxes gives them more money to spend on whatever it is they want.

  2. Patty Villanova   January 19, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Another great article that really does a lot to identify the problems we business owners are facing. I’ve been here nearly a year after moving my Side Effects boutique out of Peekskill and I can tell you that the improvement work that needs to be done in Cold Spring is not quite as challenging as some would have you believe. I’ve been writing about these issues for quite some time and am in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the other business owners about parking and sprucing up Main Street. In addition to fixing the sidewalks, we desperately need to do something about the streetlights and wires hanging from the electric poles that make this place look like downtown Bangladesh.

    The mayor talks about a comprehensive plan and a lot of taxpayer money being spent. Where and how much for the projects that have started already?

    There are a number of streetscape grants available from the State and Feds for lighting and other improvements. As a volunteer board member, I helped administer grants that the BID got for Peekskill property owners and the City. I can tell you it’s not rocket science to get the grants — certainly something that our new legislators should be able to figure out, or any one of our many notable public servants.

    As far as parking: I wonder if anyone has ever thought of asking the owner of the Flower Shoppe if she would be willing to rent her large lot to the Village for municipal parking? I can see it from my store window and it’s mostly vacant year round. One would think it could be a win-win situation for all concerned if the lot could be used for municipal parking at a fair rent for the owner.

    Getting back to the tourism issue and some of the comments in the article: yes, things have drastically changed for retailers in the past decade. All of us from the Big Boxes to the smaller Mom & Pops, have felt the effects, positive and negative, of Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and a host of other shopping alternatives now available to our customers. There’s nothing to be done except to embrace the new technology and use it to our advantage. On a positive note, we now have more places to advertise and get the word out about Cold Spring than ever before in the history of the Village. This is still one of the best day trip destinations in the tri-state area and the ambiance here is not something that can be experienced online.

    The problem remains, that it doesn’t matter how great we are, if tourists and potential shoppers don’t know we’re here, they won’t come; it’s as simple as that.

    Which is why I keep imploring Mrs. Pataki and the other County officials who say they want to help us, why not jump start our local economy by investing say $10,000 in advertising and promotion? I found out that the bike race producer was paid $25,000 and there were other unknown expenses as well that were probably several thousand dollars, and we still don’t know if it was worth it.

    Meanwhile, I am sitting here on a beautiful Saturday in January in my little shop on Main Street where it’s a virtual ghost town. Nobody is making money, everyone is hurting. None of us has 10 years to wait and see if plans for hotels and bed & breakfasts will do the trick. I daresay some of us may not be here in 10 months if things don’t pick up.

    The government is supposed to do for the people, what they cannot do for themselves. So how about it? We know what needs to be done, especially the “old timers” like Dave and Leonora. Let us have some say in how our money is to be spent. Please.

  3. Jonathan Kruk   January 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    It is heartening for this chamber past-president to find “old timers” like Tom, Dave and Leonora once again engaging newcomer Patti in a dialogue on how to best promote Cold Spring. Indeed, let’s take it all to heart and act. Sure, we’ve heard all the woes from Walmart to eBay before. Dave’s challenge to realistically fund and promote a big Fall festival should be taken on, not only by Mr. Rolston, but our chamber our village and our tourism bureau. (And move that office here now!)

    Events draw people not just for the one day, but for the future. As Cold Spring goes, so grows the town and indeed the county! Let’s also look for happenings to engage not just Ms. Villanova. How about appealing to those folding bike hipsters now roaming our village?

    So, yes, bury the wires, meter Main Street parking, offer to pay Caroline for a bus parking lot, and get a local internet marketeer to upgrade the chamber’s web presence. Remember when shopping; Cold Spring offers unique shops, personal service and an enchanting experience unknown at any mall or internet site.

    • Patty Villanova   January 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Jonathan, many thanks for your comments. They are most appreciated, if for nothing more than to show that you’re still concerned as we all are. As a storyteller, I’m sure you know how important it is to get out the message loud and clear, namely, that Cold Spring is the place to come, not just in the summer but year ’round. I’m also glad that you bring out the importance of public events in our local culture. Each event becomes something we can build on for the future. Look at the Clearwater Festival in Croton, or the Jazz & Blues Fest in Peekskill- every year they bring in thousands of people from all over to Westchester. There’s no reason Cold Spring couldn’t host something similar in addition to the other events that take place already. We have a fantastic bunch of people in this community and I believe they have what it takes to revitalize what is truly one of the most beautiful places in the Hudson River Valley.

  4. David S. Cooke   January 20, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I agree with two things you said, Tom. The Cold Spring Chamber is an embarrassment to the businesses. How it can justify a membership fee is beyond me. Take a peek at their website. It’s been like this for years. Will they ever get it working? And yes, great idea to bring back the Fall Festival. Why don’t you promote it yourself? You’re a successful businessman. You seem to have the where-with-all to make things happen?

    Tell you what, you take it on and I’ll help you. It would cost some $12,000 (give or take) to promote a successful festival and six or so months of hard work. I’ll put up half of the money ($6,000), cash. Whatta ya say? Your move!

  5. Ann Capon   January 23, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Great article. I sincerely hope that most of the issues are resolved or are the process of being so by the next time I visit Cold Spring.

  6. Barbara Hobens   January 26, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Well well well. Follow the money, indeed! Reading that “the bike race producer was paid $25,000” is much more than poor marketing. Now that is a story!

    One person gets $25,000 of our county taxes from Libby Pataki’s tourism budget for one day that so many residents and business owners found to be more disruptive than beneficial? That $25,000 should have gone to promote tourism to the repeat customer – the real base of profit – but she did not even mention it… maybe she does not know!?

    Unlike Mrs. Pataki, I went through the interview process with others for the tourism director position and was the EDC’s recommendation. Three years of research that was gained with the Philipstown Welcome Center was both eye-opening and exciting. To read that $25,000 was spent so frivolously is beyond frustrating.

    No regrets; politics won. But reading such tired ideas is irritating and discouraging.

    Tom Rolston is right. David S. Cooke is right. I was a dues-paying Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce member for a few years, and although not a Main Street store, thought that it would be a positive connection for my garden design business. It was a waste of time and money with nary a glimmer of anyone’s promotion ideas ever seeing the light of day.