WESTPORT — A crowd of 75 attended a meeting to review the Town of Westport’s Economic Revitalization Strategy Report findings.
At the recent session, Town Supervisor Dan Connell recalled how the process started in 2008, when 165 citizens gathered at Westport Central School to form committees that would look into hamlet expansion and community revitalization.
Westport partnered with New York State Department of State, Essex County Industrial Development Agency and the Project Advisory Committee, combining local stakeholders and residents of the community in developing the plan.
FOUR MAIN GOALS
Revitalization Committee Chair Charles Russell presented four main goals at the meeting: to revitalize small business activity; utilize tourism and agriculture and initiate small industries; determine a workspace for artists; and have a multi-disciplined art center.
Margaret Irwin of River Street Planning and Development of Troy, hired to obtain information for the strategy, was the primary speaker.
“We took an asset profile; a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis and found a unifying theme, which was arts oriented,” she said.
Findings included strengths, such as the citizens themselves, and physical assets that included the school system, infrastructure, high-speed Internet connection and cell service.
It was found that Westport is also distinctive in its affinity for the arts.
Westport’s strengths and opportunities include the Essex County Fairgrounds, golf course, the availability of Main Street storefronts and an area allocated for an industrial park.
Its weaknesses are considered typical for communities in the region — a population decline coupled with a growing senior demographic that is in need of services.
“Catalyst, or priority projects, include: revitalize Main Street, position Heritage House as an anchor for the new Westport arts brand, evaluate additional uses for the fairgrounds, implement a downtown marketing program and create attractive town gateways.
Anthony Wheeler, proprietor of the Westport Inn, felt there was a limitation to the arts strategy, as artists generally don’t support themselves but need outside funding, and thus sustainability is highly questionable.
Irwin responded that small arts communities are becoming viable.
“It sometimes takes subsidies to get started.”
Bertha Rand of the Essex County Fair Board told of efforts to use the fairgrounds for more than one week a year, such as for monthly craft fairs.
“Westport doesn’t seem to feel the fairgrounds are important and doesn’t support its activities,” she said.
Rand, who grew up in Westport, pointed out that there was poor attendance at events such as a recent car show, while a similar activity in Crown Point was very successful.
In discussing activities, Irwin wanted the town to think in terms of hiking local trails, the arts, culinary offerings and points of interest.
The lack of affordable housing for new families and for senior citizens was pointed out by several residents.
“That’s the pattern in the Northeast,” Irwin said. “In this area, you are aging faster than the rest of the state.”
‘SPREAD THE WORD’
A discussion ensued over so-called “branded” accommodations.
Though Westport has several bed-and-breakfasts, as well as inns, several in the audience felt that a commercially known motel chain might attract people to the area.
“We need more year-round residents,” Dee Carroll of the Westport Marina said.
“We need to market the town and school to encourage people who are creative to settle here. As far as the trails, such as CATS (Champlain Area Trail System), we need to spread the word and let the world know.”
‘UP TO WESTPORT’
Elizabeth Lee felt there should be an effort to stem the loss of young people after they graduate and reach out to them by pointing out positive attributes, such as high-speed Internet.
Jim Carroll wanted to know what will happen with the findings.
“Our role wraps up at this point,” Irwin said. “It’s up to the community to pick it up and move forward.
“Relying on an outside consultant is not the answer. You need to take it from here and partner with others, such as the (New York) Department of State.”
“We need a very specific business plan,” Russell added. “What we have here is general. A business park is a major opportunity, so is bio-fuel processing, such as from willow.
“There is an agricultural base here. Westport needs to look at other communities to partner with, possibly even look to Vermont. We need to look at every building on Main Street for revitalization and decide what the spaces could be used for.”
“The new challenge is for the committees to take the information and move forward,” Connell said. “The arts was the main focus and what got us the grant money (for the study).
“The most important thing so far is that it’s got people talking.”
Suggestions are still welcome, he said.
Copies of the report are available at the Westport Town Hall and library or go to: www.westportny.net and click on “projects.”
The next Planning Committee meeting is 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Westport Town Hall. All are welcome.
Email Alvin Reiner at: email@example.com