After reading the recent front-page article in the Times-Journal which rattled off a litany of new businesses opening up in Downtown Cobleskill, my initial reaction was cautious optimism. I share with many a sense of hope for a potential rebirth of Main Street, but I also see that realizing such a vision will take more than a few new businesses opening up only to close down in six months.
Fortunately, many of the necessary ingredients for a renaissance are already in place. Downtown Cobleskill benefits from a large and devoted group of advocates who own and operate small businesses and are active in Cobleskill Partnership, Inc. This group of people has worked to cultivate a number of successful ongoing projects like Arts in the Park concerts, ArtWalk, and the crafts market, all of which have helped to re-make Downtown Cobleskill as desirable destination. It is also important to mention that Main Street dodged a big bullet this year when Lowe’s decided not to build a home improvement center next to Wal-Mart in the East End.
However, when it comes to its elected officials both on the Village Board of Trustees and the Town Council, Cobleskill seems to be at a distinct disadvantage. The Town Board under the leadership of Republicans Roger Cohn and Mike Montario before him, has aggressively supported any big box project or major developer to come down the pike, leaving Downtown pretty much an afterthought.
Meanwhile, the Village Board under Mayor Mike Sellers, despite once seeming to have Downtown’s best interests at heart, has seemingly lost its way. Beginning in 2005, the Village Board articulated, and claimed it would uphold, a policy of requiring annexation for developments outside the village that wanted village water and sewer service. However, the Board twice backed down on this policy under pressure from Lowe’s, Town of Cobleskill officials and county officials eager only for additional sales tax revenue and sadly uninterested in the affairs of Cobleskill’s Main Street.
Downtown Cobleskill just recently dodged another shiv to its back courtesy of Trustees Mark Galasso and Bill Gilmore who voted (but lost 3-2) to abandon a grant proposal for the Newberry Square building and instead support a grant for Stella McKenna’s proposed fitness center in the Town of Richmondville. Stella McKenna has plans to move her physical fitness facility out of its current location in the Village of Cobleskill to a new location on Route 7 in the Town of Richmondville. But McKenna needs a grant to make it happen and has been asking Village Board members to stop requesting Restore NY grant monies to rehabilitate the Newberry Square building because that project might reduce her chances of receiving the grant monies. Apparently, Galasso and Gilmore would rather use state grant money to help a taxpaying business leave the village and create another empty building than to pursue grant monies to rehabilitate an important piece of historic Downtown architecture. Does that make sense to you?
Clearly, with friends like these, Downtown Cobleskill doesn’t need enemies. But it could actually get worse. This year’s village election could see Bob LaPietra elected to the Board of Trustees. LaPietra is a slumlord who was just recently forced by state courts to vacate an illegally rented apartment in the Village after two years of dragging his feet and is also currently facing charges of ballot fraud. Yet despite all of this, he still has a decent shot at winning a seat on the board. Go figure!
If he does win, he and fellow conservative Mark Galasso will join forces with Mayor Sellers to push for a dissolution of the village, a move that will carve up Cobleskill’s infrastructure at the behest of county Republican Party hacks and every water-hungry developer that wants to build a strip mall from Wal-Mart to Howe Caverns.
In spite of the current leadership in both the town and village, Downtown Cobleskill does have a fighting chance. The recent spate of projects shows that there is interest. But nothing can be accomplished if town and village officials simply turn their backs on Main Street. Now is not the time to use scarce grant money to help businesses leave the village, and it is not time to enthrone slumlords who already believe they are above the law. Now is the time to look for ways to capitalize on the current momentum and help businesses stay open on Main Street. It will take leadership dedicated to this goal. With the exception of one or two people, the entire Village and Town Boards need to be replaced, but (for Christ’s sake!) not for the worse (as with LaPietra).
In the end, a successful revitalization of Main Street need not come from politicians, but no grassroots movement or group of enthusiastic business owners can succeed with the likes of Gilmore, Galasso and Mike Sellers pulling the rug out from under them. There’s enough of that coming from other levels of government.