It's a first to have a date-line London piece in the Catskill Mountain News. But there I got to meet the lovely understated couple, Jeff and Indrani Tomasi, and hear about how they are getting funds to help businesses in the town of Middletown. Also to do a pub quiz (a first for me) and talk about our mutual love of the sticks from 3,000 miles away. Together with other second homeowners and matching funds, the Tomasis are raising $800,000 for area small businesses.
London, England — More than 3,000 miles from Margaretville, a couple wants to save Middletown’s businesses. Jeff and Indrani Tomasi live in London but love Margaretville and have a home just outside the village.
After the flood they helped establish the Small Business Development Fund in conjunction with the MARK Project. So far they’ve raised more than $200,000 but are committed to raise at least $800,000, Jeff explains. A Goldman Sachs partner, he and Indrani now sit in a pub in Highgate on quiz night, and the two answer questions about both the fund as well as trivia and current events for the pub quiz.
The first part of the fund began taking monthly applications earlier in November to distribute grants of up to $5,000 to help small businesses with flood damage. So far, Jeff explains, the applications have come from a variety of businesses from retail and restaurants to golf courses. “We’re seeing people who need help with structural repairs but more than that who need help replacing inventory that either got damaged in the flood, or else that they can’t afford new inventory for the holidays.”
The next part of the project is more ambitious and is slated to start early next year. While the details are still being worked out, the plan is to distribute between $20,000 and $50,000 in a combination of grants and low interest loans to small businesses, partnering them with mentors to help with everything from writing business plans to merchandising and establishing marketing plans. As Jeff explains, “We want the program to be more than flood relief, but if places are just barely hanging on, we first need to make sure they are around to help.”
He’s quiet with clipped hair and the intense look of a long-distance runner, while Indrani has warm eyes and an infectious laugh. The two have lived in London since 2003. They moved a year-and-a-half after buying their Margaretville house. She explains, “We’re there for only a short time each year, but it’s shaped our sense of community and home. Margaretville feels like our home for a lifetime.” They still mourn the café across from the school in its incarnation three restaurants ago, before it was Harry’s or even the Café de Paris. Part of what the couple wants is stability and success for businesses here.
MARK Project Executive Director Peg Ellsworth has been talking to the Tomasis at least twice a week as the project launches and says, “I’ve found them both to be genuine and non-pretentious people who really care about the community. They want to give back, and we see the project growing and growing. It’s not just out there for six months but going to get bigger and better.” She says she’d like to see it build into an example for rural development across the region.
One of the donors, another second-homeowner named Joe Perez says, “We don’t want Route 28 to be a string of Burger Kings and Dunkin Donuts. We want it to maintain its dignity and vitality. It would be great if Margaretville became a poster child for knowing how to stay viable and true to its basic traditions.” Perez works for Goya Foods in both Spain and New Jersey and is in Spain as we speak. With the Tomasis and Perez both overseas, the project is almost like a European bailout for Middletown at a time when there’s so much financial unrest in Europe itself.
Questions about Prince William and the new Italian prime minister are broadcast over the pub’s PA, and Jeff makes a euro note out of Playdough as he talks. (Sculpting someone in the news is part of the quiz, and given the state of the currency, the euro seems particularly apt if not an actual person). He explains that the fund will be part of his company’s charitable program, Goldman Sachs Gives, and thus benefit from its resources as well as how employees collaborate on each other’s causes. “It’s a great way to get people to help in areas they might not otherwise,” he says and adds that he and Indrani had long wanted to do something to help local businesses and the flood provided the catalyst.
The couple have given anonymously in the community before to groups like the library and are nervous now about becoming public figures. “We don’t want Main Street to become a ghost town,” Indrani says, and Jeff adds, “But we also don’t want to dictate what businesses are there or what Main Street looks like. We’re leery of this being some central planning exercise or the village becoming just a tourist community.” They see Margaretville as far more vital than serving simply second homeowners. “We want it to have local pride and independence. Hopefully this will spark people into really investing in and shopping with Main Street businesses. If people are complacent, Main Street will slip away.”
Editor’s note: Catskill Mountain News writer Jennifer Kabat was traveling in London when she interviewed Jeff and Indrani Tomasi for this story.