IN DECEMBER I went to the Walmart Museum. In October to Thomas Cole's home. Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School, and Walmart, well you know what they do. But the founder's daughter Alice Walton also has a museum in a rural-ish area. Living in the sticks, I'm interested in how art plays outside the centers of the art world. Living in the stomping grounds of the Hudson River School I'm curious about the legacy of that landscape tradition. This is a shorter version of a chapter in the book I'm working on, Growing Up Modern.
Entries in catskills (3)
I meant to post this before the New Year, so the George Bailey ref seemed more topical. But hey, it's not 12th night yet, so I'm getting this in under the wire. And the subject -- Mike Triolo – has been like Bailey for our neck of the sticks... This was in last week's Catskill Mountain News.
Meeting with Mike Triolo is a bit like stepping into It’s A Wonderful Life. Not because it’s Christmastime, and he certainly doesn’t look like Jimmy Stewart. Instead Triolo is the small-town banker working to help his community.
More than just one town, however, he’s been working for the entire region. Until this week, he’s been the Catskill Watershed Corporation’s (CWC) Economic Development Director, a job he’s held for the past nine years.
He came to the CWC from a background in small rural banks where he served several banks in a number of roles including president and chief financial officer. Having been reelected in November, he is also the supervisor of the Town of Stamford. He still lives in the house, just up the Back River Road from South Kortright, where he grew up, raised his own kids – and worked the family dairy farm, selling most of the land when it came time to retool.
“The kids didn’t want anything to do with it, and I looked at my hands and had all 10 fingers.” He wiggles them as he speaks, “And said that’s enough.” Far from the tall, rangy Stewart, Triolo is soft spoken, dressed in Dockers and a checked shirt, with balding hair that befits his age.
He came to the CWC thinking he could make a difference, and, no doubt he has if you see what he’s funded. There’ve been companies who make goalposts for football fields (their posts have been in the Super Bowl), a microbrewery, a distillery and a hairdresser, plus more than a few B&Bs. Since he started, the CWC’s business loan portfolio has grown from $8 million to $48 million. Reading the business plans and tax returns that companies submit with their loan applications has given him a unique perspective on the region. Add to that his job as supervisor and his farming background, and
Triolo is an authority on the region’s economy.
He calls making loans, “an art not a science.” As he speaks you can almost see George Bailey himself.
“We’re builders,” he says. With the amount of money they’ve lent, “We certainly have been a key instrument in the economy of the Watershed.” The CWC though has a limited pool. There is only $59.7 million so he has to treat the money responsibly. The only way they can keep lending is for the existing loans to be repaid – and not written off.
Serving big region
The CWC serves part of five counties west of the Hudson, and while he says there’s no universal truth for the region’s economy, there’s not even a “monolithic economy” in Delaware County. “It’s the state’s second or third poorest area,” he explains, “depending on the year” – topped only by The Bronx. The western part has a larger farming and manufacturing base with a thousand manufacturing jobs in Hobart and Stamford alone. The Route 28 corridor is primarily a second homeowner and tourism economy. “In all honesty,” he sighs, “those jobs aren’t the highest paying.”
What he doesn’t have to say is they’re also often only seasonal and rarely come with benefits.
He describes the area as “stably depressed,” something of an irony, and says our economy here will start to grow once the second homeowners start to feel a bit more comfortable financially. There are bright spots, he insists, “glimmers of hope,” he calls them across the county like Delhi-based Clark Companies, which builds sports fields. It’s grown by developing business outside the region, while its employees still live locally.
Another growth area? Farming. Yes, agriculture is a key economic driver. The dairy industry continues to suffer where a two to three percent fluctuation can drive prices radically and producers compete against a national market when it comes to milk.
But, other products like cold weather crops from cauliflower to kale and locally produced beef, maple syrup and cheese all are important.
He reaches for a wrapped piece of cheddar from Palatine Bridge on his desk. “You have to be able to transition from selling milk with a regular paycheck to making cheese where it takes six months to age, but eventually producers who do, make a pretty substantial living.”
Healthcare too is growing. “Clinics are opening with doctors in Delhi, Walton and here in Margaretville. Those jobs are above the county average wage and come with benefits.”
Still employers can have problems attracting staff from outside the region thanks to issues ranging from schools to culture, shopping and even housing.
“People seem to want those new” (and he shakes his head as he says this) “2,500 to 3,000 foot homes built in the last 10 years.”
What pains Triolo most as he prepares to leave his job is the flood.
“The economy had survived the recession fairly well, that is until August 28. Since, it’s been a battle.”
Lots of funding
The CWC has made $5 million available in grant money with more than $2 million of it out in the community. “But,” he says, “it’s depressing.” He has a harrowed looked on his face as he describes the outlook now. This is his fourth major disaster.
“In my experience at least a quarter, if not more, of these businesses will not survive.” The statistic is stark and when asked what people can do, he says, “If nine million people drinking water from the Catskills each gave a dollar, that would be $9 million for flood recovery.” As he describes it, it sounds as hopeful as It’s A Wonderful Life. Maybe, if a bell rang every time someone turned on a tap in New York City.
This in this week's Catskill Mountain News. Plattekill is a ski area that now has a new attraction. Officially it's a snowmaking pond. I've other designs on it. Well, after the snow.
“Welcome to the Grand Canyon.” Laszlo Vajtay waves towards the gaping hole at the top of Plattekill Mountain. The cliffs below, with their walls of rock, dwarf the ski area’s owner and even the Komatsu excavator behind him. Sixty feet deep, the “canyon” is not some folly on the top of the mountain. It’s a new pond to hold water for snowmaking.
Usually this time of year ski areas are making (and praying for) snow, and while that’s true for Plattekill too, they’re thinking more long range – a whole year out – to the 2012-2013 season. That’s when the pond will be done. Building it has taken 100,000 pounds of explosives, and the wires to ignite the charges still stick out of the rock, not far from where Vajtay stands.
For years he’d wanted to expand the pond, but the project was daunting and expensive. Since he bought the ski area in 1993 he’s kept adding snowmaking capacity.
All about snowmaking
“Snowmaking, snowmaking, snowmaking has always been my mantra,” he says like realtors talk location, location, location, and indeed snowmaking is key to making ski areas in the Northeast a success.
But the problem for Plattekill has been a lack of water. Come August 28, like much of the region, they had a new water problem. Too much of it. While the base and lodge were largely spared in the flood, some trails suffered from erosion and the pond was damaged.
“It needed repairing, so that was a natural time to increase the size,” Vajtay says. He worked closely with the DEP on permits and plans, and, he explains, “We reached out to friends of ours in the business and in construction to see what to do.”
Now Plattekill has one of the few good things Irene has produced – the canyon, which is so big it will take two years to complete.
The pond has come with other added benefits. The rock from it has been used to stabilize trails that washed out and is responsible for a new parking lot at Plattekill’s base, expanding the hill’s smallish lot to accommodate far more cars so skiers no longer have to make a long trek to the lodge on busy days.
Materials help out
Even the road to get trucks to the top to build the pond has been a bonus. It widened Powder Puff, the two-mile-long beginner trail, ringing the mountain. Perhaps the most fortuitous side effect, though, has been for area flood relief itself. The stone is going to help local road crews and for repairs to the Gilboa Dam.
Though the pond won’t be fully functional until next year, Plattekill is still benefitting from the “canyon” this season. Recently a team at the top of the hill was welding pipes so the pond can be used now. They’ll be removed in the spring to finish the project. The new pond isn’t the only expansion at Plattekill either.
Finding a double purpose for everything is part of how Plattekill makes ends meet. The ski industry works on tight margins. It’s an expensive business between insurance, energy costs and snowmaking. Add to that fickle weather and customers, and it can be a challenging business — particularly for small mom-and-pop hills. Many over the past two decades have gone out of business, but Vajtay has found ways to keep growing, and this season has been no different. He’s already acquired 45 additional snow guns. Some came from Stratton, others from Big Tupper and HKD, a large East Coast snowmaking company.
“There are even two big turbine fan guns,” Vajtay says incredulously, “from Amesbury Snow Park just outside Boston.”
He can grow like this because he works hard to find bargains, searching out used equipment to give it new life. He’ll drive across the Northeast himself to pick up parts and bring them back to Roxbury.
“In a business like this,” he says, “you can’t afford to sit on a huge amount of debt. If you borrow money based on the cash value of the business in a year like this year –” his voice trails off. He doesn’t need to finish his sentence to make it clear that you wouldn’t make it. Indeed the warm weather has been hurting ski areas from Pennsylvania to Maine.
Finding new uses
The most surprising addition to his snowmaking arsenal was finding a new, used air compressor. The Norbord fiberboard plant in Deposit closed and the building was being torn down. “They were selling off the compressors,” he says. Not just useful in making medium density fiberboard, they’re essential in snowmaking. This summer he repurposed one and installed it on the hill.
“It will,” he explains, “be great for Plattekill. Not only will it replace three diesel generators but it will make us more green, save us money on expensive diesel and make us less dependent on fossil fuels.”