Shandaken business climate sparks lively debate at town meeting
By Jay Braman Jr.
It’s a song often heard throughout the region. A song of despair voiced by members of the local business community who complain about how bad things are going and about how not enough is being done to make things better.
Last week those points were made loud and clear by Russell Roefs, a retiring businessman in Shandaken, who aimed them squarely at the town board during a lively session reminiscent of the meetings of the old days when spirited debate about any and everything was common.
But what he got in return was not what he expected.
Roefs, who owns Russ’s Country Kitchen in Phoenicia, appeared before the board last week. Preparing to move to the Philippines, Roefs has been doing business in and around Shandaken since the 1980s, the last nine years of that stint being in the Phoenicia Plaza where his kitchen stands beside a beauty salon, a pizza place, a Baptist ministry and a couple of vacant store fronts.
“In the nine or 10 years that I’ve been here I’ve seen the (Belleayre) Resort prolonged,” he said. “The last year or so we’ve seen a fight with the railroads and now we see a local businessman who employs about 30 people, 80 percent of the town shops there, every restaurateur should be here tonight saying his grocery bill is cut in half by the availability of Hanover Farms being in Shandaken and yet the season is about to begin and I don’t see any action at the farm.”
Roefs, whose own business location will be taken over by new operators in the coming weeks, then asked what the town, and what the board members were doing to bring about business in Shandaken.
“What do we want, a bedroom community like Woodstock? If that’s what you’re looking for that’s what you’re going to get,” he said. “What we’re doing here is we’re killing growth.”
He then urged the town board “to cut the red tape” and let Hanover Farms reopen.
The business is closed due to a State Supreme Court order.
After his speech, there were no echoes of “hear, hear!” or admissions of guilt for not having done enough to keep business afloat during these tough times. Rather, two board members made the case that, despite the common woes heard, business has actually been on the upswing in town for the past five years.
“I just want to give you a list of what has happened in the last five years here,” said board member Faye Storms. “It’s actually getting stronger.”
Storms said the Emerson Resort complex in Mount Tremper is expanding by renovating an old hotel on the property to become a “luxury boutique hotel” set to open next year. Also, the former Cobblestone Motel was purchased, renovated and renamed “The Graham Company” and is now booked year around. Next door to the Graham is the old French restaurant called Claude’s. That too had been shuttered but then purchased and renovated and reopened under the name “Tavern 214.” Storms reports that it is, “a nice restaurant that seems to have business all the time.”
Another long-closed eatery was the Phoenicia Diner. But that was purchased a couple years ago and reopened and by Storms’ account is “packed all the time.”
Another old eatery, Margo’s on Route 28, was just purchased, said Storms, who is in the real estate business. The owners, she said, plan to renovate and reopen.
Plus, Al’s Restaurant has been purchased and is undergoing full-blown renovations and is expected to reopen later this year as “The Phoenician.”
Besides the food industry, Storms pointed to the arts and entertainment, saying that the Mount Tremper Arts Festival and the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice are two events that are thriving, the latter so much so that organizers had to add a fifth day to the schedule of events this year.
Finally she reminded Roefs that, after years of dormancy, the Catskill Interpretive Center project is set to break ground in Mount Tremper.
“So I think that’s a lot,” she said.
Big Indian resident Bob Kalb, a frequent fixture at town board meetings, wasn’t about to take Storms positive report lying down.
Kalb said the Phoenicia Pharmacy is being sold and with it the rights the town had to its parking lot.
“So what are you going to do about that?” he asked.
Now a full-blown economic debate, Councilman Tim Malloy, who is in the restaurant business, took issue with Roefs’ claims of deterioration and with Kalb’s claim of losing parking, saying that all that is happening is the pharmacy is changing ownership. Malloy also said that his boss, Mike Ricciardella, who owns Brio’s in Phoenicia and is also the man behind The Phoenician, is doing well.
“We’re doing fine down there,” he said. “It would be nice if we were a little busier but we’re not going downhill, that’s for sure.”
Kalb was undaunted.
“The whole town of Phoenicia will be a hiking trail because there will be no parking,” he bellowed.
Against a backdrop of laughter from the small audience that followed that remark, Supervisor Rob Stanley put and end to the exchange by adjourning the meeting.