Saturday, February 7, 2009
The Conversation Begins Winston Farm forum draws dozens and lots of opinions
David Radovanovic speaks while Saugerties Town Board member Bruce Leighton looks on.
[ Dan Barton ]
by Dan Barton
For Winston Farm, the future may have just started last week.
About 125 residents turned out for a forum, held Thursday, January 29, in the Saugerties High School auditorium. The forum's purpose, its organizers said, was to begin a community dialogue about what, if anything, should be done with the farm.
The parcel, located at the intersections of Routes 212 and 32 just west of the village, has been perhaps the biggest issue before Saugertesians for the past 20 years. It was the site of the Woodstock '94 concert. Plans to locate a landfill in the late '80s and a casino there a few years ago were both repulsed by strong grassroots efforts.
"It's a gem of a property," Ulster County Development Corporation president Lance Matteson told the audience, noting that if economic development is actually to occur in Ulster County, it needs sites, both previously developed ones called "brownfields" (reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of contaminants) and previously undeveloped ones called "greenfields." The farm is about 850 acres; 370 of which are considered suitable to build on.
In contrast to previous Winston Farm plans, government officials are trying to find out what the community would like to see happen with the site up front, as opposed to drawing up a proposal and presenting it. The ultimate goal is to get the site as close to "shovel-ready" as possible before a company is found to come in. But, Matteson pointed out, "ultimately, it is the owners of [Winston Farm], in dialogue with the community, who will evolve what happens with the property."
Regional and county economic development officials see a business locating at Winston Farm as having tremendous potential to bring in good-paying jobs and hope an environmentally benign technology firm can be enticed to set up shop there. According to the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC) study of sites in the region suitable for large-scale high tech development - a study that HVEDC officials are not yet releasing to the public - "The Winston Farm site emerged as the top greenfield site within the region."
The challenge, Saugerties Town supervisor Greg Helsmoortel said in remarks opening the evening, is to bring in "economic growth in a context that protects our environment."
The forum was an early step in addressing that challenge, and the importance of the matter was underscored by the healthy turnout. Nearly two-dozen state, regional, county and local officials sat at tables stretching across the auditorium stage facing the audience. Ralph Schaller, a member of the family which owns Winston Farm, was also on hand, accompanied by family representative Carolyn Specht. "That's what we're here for, to listen to the people," Schaller said. "We're open to anything."
The HVEDC has hooked up with CH2M Hill to further look into Winston Farm's potential. The company, founded in 1946 in Oregon and currently based in Colorado, is an entirely employee-owned firm which describes itself "a global leader in full-service engineering, procurement, construction and operations," specializing in environmental quality and related matters. As of the end of last year, the company said it had 25,000 employees and brought in over $5.1 billion in revenue. It was selected by the HVEDC, said Matteson, due to their apparently extensive contacts in the high-tech sector.
Roger Pearson, director of planning for CH2M Hill subsidiary IDC Architects, with the help of the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation, took 50 minutes to explain what his company was, what a high-tech site is and what CH2M Hill had found out about Winston Farm and its possible suitability for such a site.
Pearson said seven kinds of high-tech operations - semiconductor, flat-panel display, MEMS (microelectricalmechanical systems)/nanotechnology, pharma and biotechnology, medical devices and imaging, solar and photovoltaic and data centers (described by Pearson as "buildings filled with giant servers") - were evaluated to see how those activities, called "anchor industries," would mesh with Winston Farm's pluses and minuses.
Found wanting for various reasons were semiconductor manufacturing (too much water needed; demand for its products lessening), flat-panel display (too much space; too many resources needed) and data centers (very high power requirements; doesn't add a lot of jobs).
Judged to be feasible was MEMS/nanotechnology. Cited in its favor were Saugerties' proximity to related research in Albany and the potential for strong growth. The smaller footprint and smaller water demand also lean toward this possible use, said John Frank, a CH2M Hill vice president.
Also judged to be a "possible feasibility" was pharma/biotechonolgy. While the pharmaceutical end is not so promising in the U.S. these days, biotechnology is a growing thing, Pearson said, an industry which uses "American intellectual capital." It requires smaller infrastructure and the farm's being near both General Electric in Schenectady, a leader in the biotech field, and a so-called "pharma cluster" in northern New Jersey are pluses as well.
Medical imaging and devices also looks like it could work, Pearson said, as it is a growing industry has smaller site needs and is near the New Jersey "pharma cluster."
Solar/photovoltaics was also deemed feasible. Frank said the industry is growing in the U.S. and in this case, the Thruway going through Saugerties would be a boon. "Transportation is important in this industry," Frank said, "so having this nice highway right in front of the building really does help in this case."
A MULTIPLYING EFFECT
Whatever ends up being eyed for the farm, the study's authors would like it to be an operation mixing manufacturing and research and development. It should bring about 2,000 jobs, maybe as many as 3,000, which would range in salary from $15-$25 per hour for the skilled and semi-skilled positions (requiring education ranging from high school with some technical skills and specialized training through a college degree) to $50,000-$200,000 per year for the engineering and management positions.
Pearson stressed that if an "anchor industry" is brought in, not only those jobs would be added to the community, but others as well, created by the needs of the factory and its new employees. The "indirect workforce" might include engineers, architects, consultants, designers, construction workers and service industry workers, he said.
And there is the tax revenue, too. A similar project upstate, the study states, with a $430 million investment, cut all other landowners' town taxes by 20 percent. A reduction could be expected in school taxes as well, as part of the burden shifts from smaller property owners to the large one.
Pearson said the fact that the Woodstock '94 concert occurred at Winston Farm is a selling point as well, as the creative types who work in high-tech industries will appreciate its "coolness factor."
"You think of guys who write code for software ... the idea of telling their friends they work on the site of Woodstock - that's cool. That's something that resonates with the idea of this site becoming a high-tech site, just from a marketing standpoint."
Pearson said the high-tech vision is not so different from previous visions for the site - developed by the No Saugerties Casino in their battle to save the farm - which included a museum, agricultural uses and an arts center. Sustainability and energy self-sufficiency would be stressed in both approaches, and there's enough space on the farm for a lot of different things, including agriculture, recreation and education.
"The site's big enough and diverse enough ... that maybe there could be a restaurant that serves food that's grown on the site. That's a very green solution, and selling local produce is something that resonates," Pearson said.
Pearson outlined CH2M Hill's vision of the site and how it relates to its neighbors: "The idea of a high-tech village that's open and connected to the larger Saugerties and Hudson Valley communities, containing a mix of complementary uses. ... An enclave that uses that 'anchor industry' for its financial underpinning, but also is a place to draw people into. People need a place to shop. ... People want to be able to walk to lunch, or to ride their bikes to lunch or run at lunchtime if they want to. They don't want to work in a typical business park. Those guys that write that code, they want to be able to drink beer and talk code after work in some bar that's close by. ... It's not a walled-off enclave. It's open and connected to the community."
IT'S SAUGERTIES' CALL
It has been repeatedly stressed, before, during and after last week's forum, that if CH2M Hill gets the impression from the community that a high-tech industry is not wanted for the farm, there won't be one.
"What we really need to do next is find out how the community feels about this very special site, before spending time doing anything else," Pearson said. "That's what this is all about."
To that end, CH2M Hill has put up a survey, available both online through a link of the front page of the town of Saugerties website (http://www.saugerties.ny.us/) and in hard copy form. "We want to offer to the community as a whole the opportunity to take this survey, so we can try to be as objective as we can," Pearson said.
The survey will be open for two weeks and take another two weeks to tabulate, Pearson said. "I really want to emphasize this," Pearson said. "This survey is not asking you for your approval to build anything or to rezone the site or anything of that nature. All the survey is looking for is an indication from the community that you would support further investigation of this possibility."
If the public says yes, then, Pearson said, an open process will begin. "There will be workshops, there will be much opportunity for further comment."
The goal of the process is to bring the Winston Farm site closer to the coveted "shovel-ready" status, the logic being the quicker a company can get going on construction, the more attractive the site becomes. A big step in that direction would be finishing the State Environmental Quality Review Act-required generic environmental impact statement. Getting that, a collection of forms, studies and other documentation, done now could save a year or more of time. But before that is complete, Pearson said, several other things: planning, engineering and environmental studies, developing a financial and marketing plan and coming up with a list of targeted companies, must be done, assuming the community survey comes back with the green light.
If the light comes back red, that will be the end of it, at least as far as CH2M Hill is concerned. "We're going to take this information and, after the survey comes back, see what the community wants to do," said Gary Homonai, CH2M Hill's director of business development for the Northeast region. "If the survey says you don't want to move forward, we're not going to spend any more money at all and move on. ... At this point, we really don't have a plan. We're listening, and that's why we're here tonight."
THE PUBLIC SPEAKS
After the PowerPoint presentation was finished, town councilmen Fred Costello Jr. and Bruce Leighton took microphones into the audience to elicit questions and opinions. Some were for high-tech coming to the farm, others were against it and most had questions.
Josh Randall, vice chairman of the Saugerties Historic Preservation Commission and a member of the town Conservation Advisory Commission, stressed the history of the site and said both panels he belongs to should be brought into the process. "I feel that this proposal, if done properly and in keeping with the historic nature of the farm, can be a major asset to the community," he said, adding that he would like the buildings for the site to be "low-profile, so they would not detract from the vista we have looking from east to west."
Town resident Sue Rosenberg said she was concerned by what would happen with possible pollutants that would be produced by the manufacturing process. CH2M Hill's Frank responded that each industry has its own particular pollutants, all of which are regulated by the state and federal governments. He said there would be "a point-of-use treatment plant" on the site so the effluents would meet regulatory requirements and scrubbers would be installed to clean gaseous pollutants.
Longtime Saugerties resident Frank Silinovich suggested a different approach. "It seems to me that this site, due to its logistics and due to its proximity to New York City, that if anything was ever put there like a performing arts center, that it could even compete with [the Saratoga Performing Arts Center]."
Town resident and artist Diana Bryan put CH2M Hill representatives on the spot, asking why the company and its subsidiaries have been fined several times by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for various violations, including ones in 2005 and 2006 involving radioactive waste stored at the Hanford Tank Site in Washington, where employees were contaminated.
"Since you frequently have not adhered to federal rules and regulations," Bryan asked, "can we expect you or your clients to behave the same way here, or better? And since your track record for taking care of your employees and the environment ... hasn't been that good, why should we trust that you and your clients will care for and protect Saugerties and give us good advice?"
Pearson, sounding like his feelings were a little bit hurt by the question, defended the company's green credibility, citing the many awards CH2M Hill has won and its commitment to the environment.
"I guess I don't understand some of the things you mention," he replied to Bryan, "this is the first I've heard of them. ... Our company for three or four years running has been ranked among the top 100 companies in the U.S. for employee satisfaction. ... The radioactive spill, I'm really confused about that. I would just like to mention that two of our companies successfully cleaned up the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal outside Denver, which had been a bane in the DOE's existence for a very long time. To do that, we developed very creative ways to deal with radioactive waste."
In regards to Hanford, he termed that cleanup a success, and told the audience that CH2M Hill really cares about the environment and the law. "Believe me, our culture is to play by the rules. That's why I'm mystified," Pearson said. "Yes, we want to make money, but we want to find that balance between making money and environmental stewardship. I would venture to say there's no company in the world that has a higher goal of environmental stewardship than CH2M Hill."
Frank said one of the Hanford violations was due to an operator error on a three-way valve, and that the DOE made note of CH2M Hill's work at Rocky Flats when it issued the fine, noting that the company saved the government billions of dollars with its innovative cleanup methods.
"I appreciate the comments," Frank said. "I think you want to look at the balance of both awards and continuous improvement."
WHAT KIND OF COMMUNITY ARE WE?
Local landowner and businessman Gary Dyal, former owner and now an employee with Stainless Design Concepts on Kings Highway, noted that there's a lot of high-tech going on already in Saugerties and the region, and that residents should keep in mind that companies have a lot of options in terms of placing facilities. "The globe is looking for locations - it's a very competitive process. This is an opportunity for us in this area. This is not a privilege or right that we have."
Town resident Bill Richards encouraged officials to learn from the experience of TechCity, the former IBM-Kingston site in the town of Ulster. Touted 10 years ago as the key to Ulster's economic future, the site has proved difficult to fill and remains mostly vacant. "I encourage all of you on the stage to be very mindful of that effort and please make sure that history doesn't repeat itself."
Shelli Lipton, who with husband Nathan Koenig founded the Woodstock Museum in West Saugerties, was not in favor of the kind of development CH2M Hill is talking about. "I don't know how high-tech they are thinking, but I'm thinking low-tech. Low-tech is what's going to give us our farm-fresh vegetables and low-tech is what's going keep the water around from not being polluted."
Koenig said the community "will be very vigilant" about the impact any Winston Farm project would have. "Woodstock doesn't have to be half a million people in Saugerties. It could be a performing arts center where we head 'em off at the pass from SPAC. ... Saugerties is a creative arts community."
Blue Mountain resident and Conservation Advisory Council member Gerry Marzec asked if the development effort for Winston Farm would interfere with Saugerties' efforts to grow business in the Kings Highway corridor and what would happen to the farm in 30 or 40 years if it was indeed built upon. "Are we going to be left with hulks upon a hill?" he asked.
Matteson replied, saying a more detailed analysis should take the Kings Highway issue into account, but he thought at first blush that Kings Highway would benefit from the addition of sewer and water that Winston Farm development would bring. The planning process for Winston Farm should also take the obsolescence issue into account. "One of the things that has to be looked at is how the site can be diversified in a way that minimizes the risk of a traumatic experience that Ulster County knows about all too well from the IBM experience in the '90s," Matteson said.
Resident and farmer Skip Arthur said he was pleased that residents were being asked what they wanted for the site first, rather than being told what was going to be put there, and also advocated some of the farm being used for farming.
Michael Vallarella, a resident and businessman, said he was against the casino, but is hopeful about high-tech. "I would just urge all of the residents of Saugerties to have an open mind, and to understand that it needs to be economically viable," Vallarella said. "It still needs to make money, and it still needs to provide jobs for the people of Saugerties. Sometimes, melding these things can be a little complicated, and we need to give the people on the stage the benefit of the doubt."
"I have a dream that Saugerties could have a farm belt of some sort," said resident Josepha Gutelius, pointing out that organic farming was growing as quickly as high-tech. "The prognosis is that [the cost of food] is going to skyrocket, so the more local we have, [the better]."
She added that while she had great respect for both Albany and northern New Jersey, she did not want to see Saugerties go in that direction. "As a resident here, I would not like it to be like Albany or New Jersey."
"The reason a lot of us love this community is that it's not a city community, it's not an industrial community," said village resident Penelope Milford. "It's a beautiful, historical community ... desperately trying to maintain as much open space as we can. We have a fear, each individual who loves how our town looks, we are afraid of overdevelopment. I know it is a privately owned property, but it is a precious resource for the community. It affects everybody who lives here. ... If you change the look of it, if all of a sudden there is a business park there, it would be a totally different community to live in. ... I think community development is a good thing, but making more money is not automatically a good thing for the community."
Nelson Burhans, who was born in Saugerties 79 years ago and has lived in town all his life, said Saugerties in the past ran on industry and industry is needed if the town is going to continue to thrive. "In the words of The Cable Guy," he told the panel, "Git R done!"
Burhans was the evening's final speaker, and after his pop-culture reference, participants mingled and conversed for a while before heading for the doors.
"There were a lot of good ideas," Matteson said as the forum was breaking up. "A lot of us were taking notes."
"I'm an eternal optimist," Pearson said. "I think we can figure out a win-win."