In the early 1990s, Gardiner’s central hamlet consisted of a post office, liquor store, hardware store, and a deli/grocery that could barely afford to stay open in winter. Oh, there were sporadic efforts made to open other businesses, but most withered on the vine. Quality local manufacturers like Kiss My Face cosmetics and Utility Canvas survived precisely because they were not dependent on the local community to buy their wares. In the surrounding town, some farmland was giving way to subdivision; a couple of stalwart restaurants served up steaks and spaghetti as they had for years. To all appearances, the town was evolving toward a fairly standard farming-turned-bedroom-community area, defined more by surveyors’ lines than by any noticeable personality.
It was, as artist/teacher/gallery owner Patty Eakin observes, one tough place to make a living if you weren’t in either education or corrections—or, perhaps, in construction. It was the sort of wide spot in the highway where you might expect locals to leap at the possibility of any business adding to the tax base. But when a Stewart’s Shop was proposed for the center of town, a good-size contingent of Gardinerites spoke up in opposition. The gas tanks were planned too near the aquifer, they said, and besides, the Stewarts chain did not suit their vision of the hamlet’s character.
“What character?” said some. “Stop being a bunch of cranky-pants NIMBYs,” said others. But Stewart’s ended up a few miles away in Modena, and the folks who believed passionately that Gardiner did have a character went on to challenge a subdivision they didn’t believe was being done right. Gardiner, with its bodacious fertile bosom of river valley beneath a proud peak of world class climbing rock, seemed to them to be far too special to be carved up into another stretch of sprawl.
“You’re killing us!” said some folks, especially as the words “building moratorium” began to be noised about. Just as the issues were beginning to be defined and the battle lines drawn, along came the Awosting Ridge proposal—350 homes for the wealthy to be built atop the Shawangunks. It was an epic fight, complete with an eccentric millionaire—John Atwater Bradley, who ruled the Reserve from “a former Girl Scout lodge with a parrot named Thisbe, a stuffed black bear and, lately, a mannequin dressed in 1890s fashions he’s named Vicky,” according to the New York Times.
Opposing Bradley was Save The Ridge, a local coalition that was part
kitchen-table shirtsleeves, part big-city communications savvy.
“This moratorium debate was well under way when the Awosting Reserve proposal was announced in the autumn of 2002. Using ‘red-hot’ as a term to describe the upped intensity of the debate is a considerable understatement. What the ‘red-hot’ did for Gardiner was to take a gangly, adolescent town and force it to ask itself what it wanted to be when it grew up,” observes Phil Ehrensaft, a local resident and an expert on rural economic development.
In 2004, a Democratic ticket swept the town election, riding the urgency of the Ridge battle. The moratorium was enacted, and a planning and zoning committee pondered for many months over regulations for future growth. The new administration set a number of plans in motion, and supporters had the wind at their backs: besides the moratorium and zoning rewrite, there would be renovations to the historic and dilapidated town hall, bonding for open-space preservation, a town-owned stretch of rail trail, reed beds at the sewer plant, and full-on governmental support for helping to realize the library’s dream of a new building, to name just a few of the developments that had naysayers shaking their heads. Save the Ridge ultimately prevailed, and the land where Bradley envisioned development is now part of Minnewaska State Park. “Woe is us,” said some.
Five years later, woe is hard to find in Gardiner. Fine wine and liquor, grass-fed meats and artisanal cheeses, expertly crafted jewelry, exquisite painting and sculpture, ambrosial baked goods, fresh produce, consignment designer gear for pennies on the dollar, wellness practitioners who will heal you from scalp to toenails, dance lessons, a fine new library and renovated town hall—these, and more, you will find in Gardiner. And despite the ongoing and sometimes heated dialogue over individual property rights vs. zoning restrictions, the anticipated woe has largely failed to materialize for most.
“Since day one, it’s been fantastic,” says Jodi Whitehead of the central hamlet’s business community. “I opened in March, and Gardiner has been nothing but wonderful—there has been total support from the community and the town. This is exactly what I dreamed of—I wanted a store in a cute, close-knit small town where people were big on community. I love this town, I really do.” Whitehead’s Uptown Attic consignment shop is the newest addition to the central hamlet family, which now includes nearly a dozen small businesses.