February 10, 2013

Local products, history enrich community

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

— My fascination is with the creation of a sustainable regional economy in the North Country. I write this column because I believe discussions about the economy will make for a better economy. My interest in our small business is motivated by a desire to see our regional economy diversify into the production of grapes and wines. And, my love for our downtown is driven by the dual beliefs in a sustainable local economy and that people want to find their surroundings interesting and stimulating.

Lois Clermont, our paper’s editor, recently wrote an inspirational article about how restaurateurs are coming to appreciate the value of local production at their table. Of course, they want to keep their food and drink costs as low as they can. However, they realize that, while sometimes local products from small farms are a bit more expensive, they provide the small-business person with an opportunity to enrich their customers’ experience.

A guest at a restaurant is there to enjoy a good meal. However, if that was all they sought, they could just as easily have the food delivered.

Rather, the customer is also seeking an experience. The restaurant’s ambiance is important, of course. But, so is the colorful reputation of the chef, the vision of the restaurant owner, the history of the building that houses the dining room, and even the history of the town. These colorful aspects make the table conversation more interesting and the meal more enjoyable.

These are the reasons why restaurants want to be able to tell a story of local farm products on their menus, and why they would want to also serve wine made locally. People want to feel their meal is special, something that can only be consumed here, and not mimicked in every chain across America.

And, this is why we should see great value in the history all around us, even if those who have lived here for generations take it all for granted.

A neighbor of our vineyard in Mooers once referred to “the four corners” down the street. Of course, almost every intersection has four corners, but everybody who grew up there knew which intersection he meant, even though the “four corners” has never been marked as such.

Old-timers can walk downtown and point to where the big hotel burned down, how streetcars used to ply Margaret and Bridge streets, what used to be in the old Federal Building, and talk all about the nuns who lived in the mansion on Brinkerhoff.

But, visitors don’t know these interesting artifacts, and myriads more.

At a recent meeting of some interested in revitalizing our downtown, SUNY Plattsburgh President Ettling reminded us how Bostonians celebrate their Freedom Trail. I bet not many Boston residents have walked the entire trail, but most visitors have. I, too, have asked why we don’t have such a trail in Plattsburgh, and was told that we do have one, but that we don’t advertise it. Well, if a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear?

We are really missing an opportunity if we cannot be so bold as to celebrate more of our local produce, our local wines, our local scenery and our local history. You see, it is not about us. It is about offering interesting color to those that visit us. Our visitors and our transplants come here seeking a richer experience. They want to soak up all things local. Sometimes the best we seem to muster is to tell them a story about Champy.

The communities that successfully arrest the rural population drain and attract the best, brightest and most innovative young people who will sustain their futures are those communities that stand head and shoulders above the others. These aspiring communities have nothing on us, but perhaps a strong sense of self. They don’t thrive because they have large businesses. They have large businesses because they think big.

You have heard the story that IBM, GE and other companies considered Plattsburgh before locating in Burlington. We spurned these industries, but small but ambitious Burlington didn’t. The companies came because they were convinced Vermont was special — maple syrup, a great lake, beautiful mountain scenery (across the lake), and an emerging civic pride.

Companies followed the vision and pride. New employees sensed something palpable and exciting. Very soon, history was celebrated, Church Street was built, the waterfront was revitalized and everything Vermont became historic, special and even wonderful.

Old-timers remember the days when Burlington was no different from Plattsburgh. Now, everywhere you go they celebrate Vermont. On every menu you find local food, local wine and local beer. Many buildings celebrate their history with plaques and many writers celebrate local color.

Vermonters no longer must be prodded to celebrate local, buy local, grow local and drink local. Pride has become a state of mind.

Not so much here, though. It is time for us to have our own Freedom Trail that celebrates the freedom to be proud of the history all around us and what we make and grow here. They are every bit as good as that experienced elsewhere — indeed, if I can be so bold, maybe even better.

Colin Read contributes to, has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave, and chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @ColinRead2040.