This blog chronicles and analyzes developments in the Upper Delaware Valley, with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and what people are doing to make this a better place. You can find news here as well as commentary - but don't expect neutrality. The award-winning editorial writer for The River Reporter from 2004 to 2012, I am an advocate for sustainability, self-sufficient economic growth vs. globalization and protecting the environment on which our health, prosperity and quality of life depend.

Friday, August 31, 2012

And Forestburgh makes five

Without much fanfare, the Town of Forestburgh has become the fifth town in Sullivan County to pass zoning that effectively bans natural gas drilling within its borders.

Perhaps one reason the town has escaped the publicity received by its four predecessors in the county -- not to mention the two towns, Fremont and Delaware, that have passed resolutions essentially welcoming drilling -- is because it is further away than any of them from the "line of death" considered to separate natural gas that is commercially viable from that which is worthless. But it is important nevertheless, if only from a PR point of view.

To the degree that Sullivan County towns can show solidarity with regard to their attitudes toward the industrialization of the local landscape, to the same extent do they provide a firm foundation for marketing and branding our area as a center of green consciousness. That can have positive repercussions for tourism, second-home ownership, the attraction of green technology companies, and the development of a wholesome foodshed for both local food consumption and selling to nearby municipal areas.

Stormy weather brewing at the UDC

There's controversy brewing at the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) over its latest five-year plan. In one way, this is good news. As Executive Director Laurie Ramie noted at the recent Project Review Committee meeting, in the past, five-year plans very similar to the current draft have breezed through the approval process without review or comment. The 40-page tome, much of which is dense background information paraphrasing sections of the River Management Plan (RMP), is tough to wade through, and I suspect that in the past none of the council members has bothered to try to hack their way through the things, treating them instead as pieces of bureaucratic paperwork to be filed and forgotten.

This time, though, ears have perked up. Part of this is due to the fact that NPS Superintendent Sean McGuinness is apparently paying more attention to what he is doing than (at least some of) his predecessors, and so has actually read the plan and thought about what the council is trying to accomplish. Accordingly, one set of rather extensive comments--largely calling for a more specific focus on actions to be taken in the upcoming period, rather than ongoing duties of the council-was submitted by the NPS.

In addition, though, a table listing the results of a poll of priorities taken at a one-day workshop on the plan, and placed as a preface to it, leads off with "protecting private property rights" as the council's number one concern. This has led to a range of agitated feedback.

One problem is that many of the towns were simply not represented for the vote in question, being unable to attend that one day. Consequently, even representatives like Shohola's Pat Jeffer, considered to be friendly to property rights concerns in general, would like to see a redo on that poll. So would the rest of the Water Use and Resource Management Committee, led by Tusten representative Tony Ritter, who first proposed the idea, and that is the recommendation that WURM will make to the full council on Thursday, September 6.

A more profound problem is that there is plenty of dissent within the council as to whether private property rights really should be seen as the primary interest of the council - or even co-equal with the goal of protecting the river resource.

Town of Highland alternate Debra Conway submitted comments on the plan arguing that to have that priority leading off the council's plan for the upcoming five years is to turn things on their head. She wrote, "The enabling legislation, the River Management Plan and even the UDC's first five-year plan stated that the number one priority was/is the protection of the unique scenic, cultural and natural rqualities of the Upper Delaware River. And all allowable land uses follow from THAT number one priority."

Given that I have never, in the two or three years that I have been following the UDC, seen it refer to its five-year plan as a guide, it might seem that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. Moreover, from what I have read of the current draft, I would not say that Ramie centered the current draft around property rights, poll notwithstanding. But reps like Hal Roeder of Delaware have in recent months not only made it clear that they consider private property rights to be co-equal with resource protection as a matter of council concern, but have even voted for a motion (happily defeated) based on that concept. That's the resolution that would have declared the Towns of Tusten, Highland and Lumberland out of substantial conformance due to their zoning forbidding high-impact industrial use town-wide.

That motion was defeated. But shifts in the council's composition over the last year are making it increasingly likely that similar motions might be passed in the future -- especially if, every time they come up, Roeder et al can site the poll in the five-year plan as proving that the UDC should be giving primacy to private property rights. This would render the body useless for (what should be) its primary task of protecting the river, and could very easily create a situation in which the Secretary of the Interior, who is bound to uphold the intentions of the underlying legislation, decides to dispense with the council's services.

All this will most likely be duked out at the next UDC meeting on September 6 on Bridge Street in Narrowsburg, NY. The results could have consequences for the council - and the river corridor - for years to come. Keep your eyes on it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What’s in a brand?

Pretty much any conversation about how to market this area, whether to tourists, food consumers, second-home owners or prospective businesses, sooner or later seems to wind up with a discussion of the concept of brand. But while everyone seems agreed on the importance of branding, there isn’t necessarily a clear agreement as to what it means, as was brought to my attention at the recent charrette for the Upper Delaware Waterfront Revitalization Plan in Hortonville, NY.

In particular, it seemed during part of that discussion that the concept of brand was being confused with the concept of product—when in fact, it is precisely the distinction between brand and product that is key to the usefulness of the idea. Branding is the establishment of a charismatic character or image that can be cast over a wide variety of products and/or services offered by a company or, in our case, a geographic area, that will prompt customers to choose them over similar products and services offered by other entities.

The exchange in question started when Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon said he thought that the county might need not just one brand, but a multiplicity of brands. One of the consultants responded that they had just dealt with something similar, and gave the example of Watkins Glen, which he said had gone through a similar identity crisis, starting out at first identifying itself with racing, then with wine, then with its canal.

But racing, wine and a canal are not brands. They are, in effect, different items in the product line. We don’t need a wide variety of brands; we need one or two strong brands that can encapsulate our wide variety of products. It is not just, say, fishing, local food or gallery crawling that we need to be able to market and sell, any more than Nike can sell running shoes and T-shirts with a swoosh on them for three or four times what it costs them because it has brands called “running shoe” and “T-shirt.” We need to create an Upper Delaware (or Sullivan County, or whatever the brandable unit turns out to be) swoosh, that will not only distinguish our fishing, galleries and food products from everybody else’s, but make people willing to pay extra for them.

All of which is not to say that Aragon was wrong about Sullivan County needing more than one brand. The eastern and western portions of the county seem to have characters and histories that are different enough that the river valley brand, however it is ultimately defined, can probably not be used to encompass the eastern side, the erstwhile Borscht Belt—and though I was not at the earlier portions of the charrette, it was clear from the presentation that this was a belief that had apparently already been articulated by others. The river itself provides such a strong image that it clearly needs to be central to whatever brand is established for the western portion of the county, and to try to extend it too far from its banks would tend to vitiate it.

It seems clear, by the same token, that the natural unit for the Upper Delaware does not stop at Hancock along with the Scenic Byway, but extends all the way to the heads of the tail waters, including much of the coldwater fishery, meaning that in any branding effort, a coordination with Delaware County may prove even more important than with Orange County and its southern piece of the NPS river corridor.

Apart from the geographical unit to be branded, what more precisely is the essence of a brand? It is not just an image, but an image that evokes an experience. It establishes an emotional connection. It can be seen as an idea or even a lifestyle.

Those interested in an insightful discussion the concept should take a look at Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo,” especially the introduction to the 2010 and the first couple of chapters. Klein’s book is actually a searing indictment of branding as an increasingly pernicious trend toward the substitution of form for substance and propaganda for action in both the corporatization of the global economy and in politics (which, sadly, have become pretty much the same thing).

But I think there’s a possibility of coming up with a relationship between product and brand that does not have the pernicious effects Klein describes. Branding becomes destructive, as Klein details, when the connection between branding and product becomes severed entirely, when the quality of the product, the process by which it is created and the people entrusted with its creation become simply immaterial to the lifestyle, or attitude, or personality being extolled in the marketing campaign. “These pioneers made the bold claim that producing goods was only an incidental part of their operations,” Klein writes. “What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.”

But if you create a brand that makes people think and feel certain things, whether it be “green” or “natural” or “hospitable” or “small town America,” there is no reason you can’t remain committed to actually delivering those qualities in your goods and services. That, it seems to me, will be the challenge for those of us who are interested in constructing a brand for ourselves here. It’s kind of like creating a soul for ourselves, and then setting out to figure out what we have to do to keep it—while reaching out to invite others to share it.

Charrette surprisingly provocative

I didn’t necessarily expect much from the second evening of the design charrette held for the Upper Delaware waterfront revitalization plan for the river corridor on Wednesday, August 1—it sometimes seems like Sullivan County spends its time endlessly planning, without anything much ever getting done—but it turned out to be interesting in several respects.

The first point of interest was the summary that the consultants gave of all the challenges, concerns and opportunities that locals had presented to them on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Laundry lists tend to be pretty boring, but this one seemed especially valuable to the extent that it was organized into useful categories, and seemed comprehensive enough to provide a great base reference for future discussion. (If you’re interested in having it as such a reference, the consultants are preparing a report that will be presented to the Sullivan County Planning department over the coming weeks, and the department will in turn disseminate it to the towns.)

But a number of the points also sparked off some ideas that hadn’t occurred to me before. For instance, in a list of the potential users of the river corridor, the consultants included both beginning hikers and beginning paddlers. The qualifying word “beginning” seemed somewhat daunting at first, to the extent that it suggests that the hiking and paddling here might not be as good as it is in places like Colorado with more challenging waters and topography.

But it also opens up a possibility: this area can specifically be marketed to groups with varying abilities and in varying physical condition that want to get outdoors, but have to accommodate those varying abilities. That means not only that marketing can be directed at families but also at corporations looking to do team-building events and corporate outings. With metropolitan areas not far away, this strikes me as a big opportunity that so far has remained largely untapped. Of course, to take full advantage of it probably would require a solution to the perennial lodging problem. But it charts a productive direction for planning.

Another idea that struck an obvious chord with those assembled was the bullet point “First contact/ambassador program – every staff person is a potential ‘point of first contact.’” The presenter noted that when visitors ask someone standing behind a counter what is going on in the area, it makes a big difference whether that person either can tell them about the festivals, gallery shows, flea markets and events or present them with a piece of literature that lists such events; or just says, “Hey, there’s nothing going on here. It’s really dead.” A murmer ran through the audience as we all remembered times when we had heard people saying just that, or something very like it, to visitors.

Transforming this kind of attitude and interaction is a piece of low-hanging fruit that can be done for free, or virtually free—education and outreach is obviously needed, as well, perhaps, as the production of improved literature to distribute.

The conversation that was most interesting to me was that which concerned the concept of branding—but that really needs its own post.

I’ll keep track of the final report from the consultants and let you know when it becomes available to the towns.

'Complementary planting' for street fairs

Matt Solomon of Farmhearts, who along with NYC chef Heather Carlucci is organizing the August 11 Pig Mountain event in Narrowsburg, had some interesting comments about the way the event has been structured at Mildred's Lane last night. He started out by saying he had wanted to use the idea of "complementary planting" in planning the event.

 In vegetable gardening, complementary or companion planting means putting plants next to each other that create benefits for the plants next to them, by secreting chemicals that repel insects, breaking up clay soil, providing shade, fixing nitrogen in the soil and the like. What Solomon meant in the context of Pig Mountain, an event in which ten fine regional and/or NYC chefs have been invited to cook ten pigs and sell the roast pig, along with fixings, from booths on Main Street, is that the event should incorporate the existing tenants in town, thus providing explicit benefits to them rather than the usual vague "a lot of people are in town and some will therefore wander into the stores."

Solomon specifically did not invite, for instance, beverage vendors into town to fill out the roast pig and sides menu. Narrowsburg Wines & Spirits has been offered the opportunity to sell alcoholic beverages, Coffee Creations coffee, the Heron other beverages. And Heron chef Paul Nanni will be one of the chefs, introducing attendees to the quality of the cuisine to be expected at that restaurant. In another effort to include merchants rather than leave them on the outskirts of the crowds, Pig Mountain organizers are bringing the booths into the street so that the crowds access them from the sidewalk (but still leaving a lane free for an emergency vehicle, as the town requires). This contrasts with street fairs in which the booths are accessed from the middle of the street, leaving their backs to the street front stores and correspondingly, leaving the full-time merchants out in the cold.

The idea of designing a street event to directly complement the existing Main Street businesses is an interesting one, and I look forward to see how they carry it out next weekend.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Introducing the "I'm Against It" awards

One of the more depressing features of attending public meetings out and about the Upper Delaware Valley is the small but devoted cadre of attendees who seem to be there for the sole purpose of telling other people who are trying to make things better why that can't be done.

About a month ago we found ourselves listening to a trio of such naysayers at an Upper Delaware Council meeting, who met a couple of requests for UDC letters supporting two local townships' applications for state matching grants with stern questions as to how the townships were  proposing to pay for the matching portion of the funds.

To begin with, if the UDC is charged with being the tax police for its individual member towns, this is the first we've heard of it, and we've read the River Management Plan more than once. Beyond that, it's hard to see how we are going to make a better life for ourselves in this river valley if, every time somebody makes an effort to improve things (using free state money, yet), this self-appointed posse rides in explaining that we're too poor to do anything but hunker down and suffer.

Last night at the second night of a charrette held in connection with a state grant (already obtained, thank you) for a river corridor waterfront revitalization project, we were again reminded of this syndrome by some remarks by Noel van Swol of the Town of Fremont. The event has inspired us to create an "I'm Against It" award series, to be presented in the righthand column of this blog, which will appear from time to time documenting the newest in this series of depressing incidents. And if you want to know our inspiration for the award's name, see Professor Wagstaff (aka Groucho Marx) performing below: