January 20, 2013

Securing a community's future

Colin Read

---- — Occasionally, a town can celebrate a milestone in its progress. Rarer yet is the opportunity to celebrate two such markers toward our future. This week, we celebrate five.

About four years ago, some visionaries in our region pondered whether we have done enough to ensure our community’s sustainability. These discussions resulted in Vision 2040, a chance for our community to gaze into a crystal ball and glean which ghost of Plattsburgh future will emerge. These gatherings included a vital mix of young professionals and seasoned community leaders. The forums were apolitical because we were dealing with a future that was still decades away, not the present that dictates political campaigns.

A sobering message and a vibrant theme came from those series of three 2040 workshops. If we did nothing, we would experience the same rural decay that other regions suffer. However, if we can attract the young people who will ensure generations of workforce participants beyond our own retirement, we can share for generations what we have come to love in our region.

These realizations are more subtle than they first appear. The demographics demonstrated that our region is aging. Those who stay here throughout their career tend to retire here, but many who are born here pick up their roots and move to urban centers. If we don’t bring them back, or bring other young workers here in their stead, our community ages.

Some argue that we can sustain without young people. They point to retirement communities that don’t worry about such messy economic artifacts as industries, regional exports, etc. They fail to see that even a financially well-endowed retirement community still needs services and working-age people. As our community ages, we need hospitals and medical services, accessible shopping, financial and other services, roads and fire halls. We need enough working-age people to provide these services, and the infrastructure they need for their families. An elderly community, especially, must attract new families because they are beyond the age to procreate their own future workforce.

Vision 2040 showed this most dramatically. I will recap some of these results when the group that continues the campaign, Vision2Action, has its first annual meeting this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Strand Theater.

The forum will bring the public up to speed on a number of initiatives all designed to implement the observations of the Vision 2040 workshops. A visionary and healthy community needs to attract young people. And, to attract young people, we have to provide the services and communities young people seek.

If the first milestone on Thursday is the annual meeting of Vision2Action, the other four milestones that evening are report cards on four initiatives. One is a community partnership to educate our next generation of workers, called Thrive. Another is an update on the great progress this community has made in recreational opportunities for people of all ages.

A third includes some ideas on how we can make transportation in our region healthier, safer and more accessible. Spanning both the second and the third milestone is an update on what I think will quickly become a great legacy for our community – a river walk that now extends from downtown Plattsburgh to Plattsburgh State University and will eventually extend all the way to Saranac. This project combines both recreation and transportation as it provides a scenic, safe, and speedy way for skateboarders, strollers and cyclists to go between our city and town.

Perhaps the most exciting of all will be the very gathering place. Marshall McLuhan once said that sometimes the medium is the message. The renovation of the Strand Theater, once a grand concert hall and playhouse at 25 Brinkerhoff St. in our downtown core, is almost complete. They are thrusting wide open their doors for this important public event. At the Vision2Action forum, we will get a glimpse of just what this facility will do for our community once it is fully restored later this summer.

The Strand is the perfect vehicle to discuss our community’s future and the importance of the arts in attracting and keeping our young people. To date, it has raised more than $3 million for the historic renovation. Most of the funds are now in place to secure its completion. That is wonderful news.

There is a catch, though. Some of the money pledged to complete the Strand is contingent on matching funds. In fact, the Strand has raised enough not only to complete the building restoration to a grand style of metal leaf and ornate walls and fixtures, but also to start outfitting the theater with equipment required to put on Broadway-quality plays and Carnegie-quality concerts.

The Strand only gets the last $500,000 of these funds if it can raise another matching $500,000 from the public. The public has given generously, with almost $2 million in personal and corporate pledges. Our government sponsors and grants have well exceeded any reasonable expectations of their commitment, and now public giving is 80 percent of the way there. With your help, we can reach that threshold.

Celebrate Vision2Action in your community this Thursday. You will be glad you did.

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