Press-Republican

August 19, 2012

Residents show vision for city beach

Colin Read, Everybody's Business
Press-Republican

---- — The other day, a group of visionaries, co-led by local entrepreneur and hotelier Terry Meron, approached the Plattsburgh City Council to advocate a study.

These long-term residents and entrepreneurs have lived in Plattsburgh for decades. Some were born here, as were some of their parents. Some have streets named after them. As kids, they enjoyed the city beach, and they recall the days when there was an almost solid string of traffic from the beach to downtown during hot summer days and nights.

In those days, tens of thousands of people, many from beyond our county, enjoyed Lake Champlain’s warm waters and sandy beach. Small booths would satisfy the beach revelers’ hunger or thirst. These were the halcyon days of our beach and our town. Meron and many others want to capture that spirit once again.

Their vision is to create a world-class beach lined by a boardwalk. They believe the woods behind the beach, not too long ago a garbage dump, would better serve us all with paths, ponds, bridges and green grass. These visionaries imagine we can enjoy ourselves by buying a bite to eat and perhaps a drink, renting a kayak or a sailboat, sitting on a pier by the bay, and, maybe someday even staying at a nice hotel near the beach.

Others are trying to join two bicycle paths that might reconnect the beach to downtown. Their solution is simple. The short section of Route 9 near McDonalds and Georgia-Pacific, with a 30-mph speed limit, might be better served with a central turning lane, a single lane in each direction and a bike path and sidewalk along each side. Some might observe that a single traffic lane in each direction would slow vehicles down. However, a middle turning lane will speed things up.

Still others, myself included, advocate for moving the central downtown waterfront sewage treatment plant to a wetlands near Scomotion Creek.

These ideas will cost money, some very little, others much more. However, a careful analysis will likely demonstrate that the economic benefits far exceed the costs.

The other fascinating thing about each of these visions is that they are bubbling up from citizens themselves. These are examples of the truest form of government — citizens banding together to propose and debate new ideas for our community that will benefit us and allow us to attract or retain those 3,000 families we will need by 2040 just to hold our own.

Our community is hungry for the great debate. Meron recommended something even more modest — to seek a grant to perform a study to see if a revitalized city beach makes good economic sense.

If the grant is completed, I am confident it will conclude that our waterfront treasures would benefit from some investment. Meron does not insist upon public investment, although it makes sense because we all would benefit.

Meron and others instead believe that the private sector can and perhaps even ought to do its share of beachfront development. He recognizes that entrepreneurs go to bed each night and wake each day wondering about how they can make their passions more desirable to visitors. Their hard work should be rewarded by a fair profit, just as the city’s investment deserves to earn the property and sales-tax revenue that can support its investment in our future.

Some balk at the notion that an entrepreneur could earn a profit from a concession on public land. But they also pay their taxes and concession fees, and they make sales that earn the county and city other taxes. Through a private-public partnership, we can develop an asset that has been grossly under-appreciated.

Of course, if we want our local government to go into the business of developing our under-appreciated assets, then so be it. Some may find such a notion offensive, while others cannot imagine any other entity doing it. I am more pragmatic. I want us to enjoy our city, and I don’t see much getting done without a public-private partnership in these fiscally frustrated days. No entrepreneur will take such grand risks without public cooperation, and no public entity will build boardwalks, restaurants, parks or hotels without private money.

Now is the time for us all to take the future into our own hands and let the private and public sectors get things done for us all.

Colin Read is a contributor to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.