Press-Republican

June 2, 2013

Programs bring vitality to downtown

Colin Read, Everybody's Business
Press-Republican

— We are experiencing a slow but pronounced revitalization of downtown Plattsburgh. A number of events this summer stand witness to our resiliency and the excitement many still have for rural America.

Before I describe what this summer in downtown Plattsburgh has become, and what it could be, let me describe how we are fortunate and what we have to do to keep it that way.

Our nation has been changing for the last 150 years. Once a nation of farmers, the industrial revolution attracted their sons and daughters to big cities. A century ago, our nation became more urban than rural.

Also a century ago, agriculture represented a quarter of our nation’s output, and the largest share of its workforce. Now, only about 3 percent of our output and workforce are employed in farms that are much larger and more mechanized. Enormous scale, highly mechanized farming has put inexpensive food on our table. It has also stripped opportunity for our young people in rural areas.

Rural America has been bleeding population for generations. It has decimated many communities, but has not taken them all. There are some that are able to develop a mix of agriculture, manufacturing and services. Ours is one of those communities.

We have been fortunate because of the confluence of a rich history, a proud tradition, family roots and a proximity to a ready market in Canada.

Even so, I calculate our county must retain or attract 3,000 families or households by the year 2040. Those we retain are households that would otherwise leave if we do not create a livelihood and a quality of life.

Those who come and those who return are looking with a fresh set of eyes at what could be possible here. Many want to enjoy our natural beauty. However, most also want to experience urban amenities.

Fortunately, there are grassroots sets of individuals and organizations that recognize the challenges ahead. The Strand Center for the Arts and Rotagallery recognize that a vibrant arts community creates an irrepressible urban energy. Vision2Action has assembled business and non-profit leaders to brainstorm how to leverage our energies. And, the Adirondack Young Professionals are a collection of young career-dedicated individuals who know that career is not enough. They are willing to work tirelessly to help forge their own future and benefit the rest of us in the process.

The soft opening of the Strand with the Quartet Gelato concert on Saturday, June 8, will offer us a taste of their vision. But, this landmark opening of a beautifully restored concert hall is but one event that is happening this summer. Events like these will occur at least once a month.

The Quartet Gelato performance is part of an exciting effort called First Friday weekends. The first Friday of each month, starting June 7, will inaugurate First Weekends in downtown Plattsburgh with an art walk, music and performances and coupons to participants for 10 percent off at many merchants the following day.

Then, on the following Saturday from 2 p.m. and afterward, following the closing of the farmers market, there will be all kinds of activities for people of all ages. For most and perhaps all of these Saturdays, City Hall Place will be closed to traffic and will be filled with music, sidewalk chalk art activities, the art walk and demonstrations from such groups as the Children’s Imaginarium Museum, the Lumber Jills and other fun groups.

We are encouraging street buskers to perform their magic and demonstrate their talents, and we hope people will garner a sense of an urban center designed around people and foot traffic. We also hope that Friday evening attendees will patronize participating downtown shops on the following Saturday and enjoy their 10-percent-off coupons.

I know there will be comparisons to the ongoing energy and activity on Church Street in Burlington. We can augment the people energy and the open-air setting with a lot of history, reenactments, bagpipes and the like and maintain our distinctive Plattsburgh character. However, would comparisons to a vibrant urban community anywhere be so bad?

Watch for more information on First Friday events. If you can share a talent, drop me a line and I will connect you.

Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.