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Gardiner: Contentious, Spirited, Wonderful

Call it the Little Town that Could.

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.

“It’s happening. Believe it, and it will happen,” says Heidi Haddad-Hill joyfully. Haddad-Hill’s HiHo Home Market, an eclectic décor and furnishings place as singular as its irrepressible owner, was one of the first of the new wave of hamlet shops. Haddad-Hill is newly installed as president of the Gardiner Association of Businesses (GAB), the town’s informal chamber of commerce, a grassroots local group that’s flourished in the past few years. In 2009, GAB had five Gardiner-based member businesses named Best of the Hudson Valley: the HiHo Home market, Patty Eakin’s Bruynswick Art Studio and Gallery, Ralph Erenzo’s Tuthilltown Spirits distillery, Skydive The Ranch (best outdoor adventure, owned by some of the earliest promoters of Gardiner’s growth spurt), and the Mountain Brauhaus restaurant.

“The Gardiner community really supports us,” says Haddad-Hill. “There’s a segment that comes out for everything we do. I think it’s because our businesses are conceived, designed, and priced with the local community in mind. We serve their needs. If we get tourists, that’s gravy. I can walk to work with my dog, or ride my bike. It’s paradise.”

“We just had a Holiday Stroll event, and 12 businesses participated,” says Main Street property owner Robin Hayes. “There were groups of people wandering all over town, bumping into each other, having little treats at each place. Everybody decorated so beautifully! We all collaborate—there are several groups that overlap, all promoting one another. We come together around common goals and take action—and we have a blast doing all of it. It’s such a great vibe.” The town that once suffered tumbleweed jokes has exactly one storefront in need of a tenant; the once-pedestrian grocery has been reborn as the Village Market and Bakery, with a quaint historic façade. The stalwart local restaurants have just recently been joined by Café Mio—local eats, served up by a Culinary Institute grad who earned his stripes at the famed Depuy Canal House under the “father of new American cuisine,” John Novi. “A few years ago, Gardiner just stepped it up a notch. It’s been a great decade.
Now the energy is starting to gather again—I can feel the next wave coming, and it’s exciting.”

“We’d do it all over again,” says lifetime resident Joe Katz of the long-ago decision to say no to Stewarts. Katz was elected town supervisor in 2007, successor to the Democratic regime under whose leadership the wave of change swept town government. He himself is determinedly nonpartisan—he campaigned as “Joe Katz for Gardiner,” and says he is looking forward to working with the two Republicans who gained board seats in 2009, ending years of what was effectively one-party rule. “More and more stuff is coming in to our industrial park—Amthor from Walden is bringing in 40 jobs, Gillette Creamery is bringing in 50 or 60 more. Kimlin Propane is expanding. SUNY New Paltz called, and they’re bringing a group of visiting Russian mayors to see Gardiner’s town hall and transfer station. Building permits went way up in the second half of 2009. We’re watching every dime of taxpayers’ money, believe me—but there are some big bucks coming into this town.”

One of many issues on the new board’s plate, to be discussed, studied, previewed, and reviewed by town and other related boards and by the loyal opposition, who rarely miss a meeting or a chance to sound off, is an application for a 22-acre solar farm. It would be the first such in New York State. It sounds like something the woe-is-me crowd would have scoffed about years back: “Whaddya think, we’re gonna start building solar farms or something?”

“What I love,” says Katz, “is that you literally never know what’s next. For a solar farm, there are no rules, so we’re being extremely careful as we proceed. One thing I can predict. There will be a bunch of people who live right near it, who won’t want it.”

“His job,” says a Gardiner entrepreneur, “is to listen to those people, hear their concerns, smile and say, ‘If this will be good for Gardiner, we’re going to let it happen.’ That’s how we built the library and how we bought the Rail Trail.”

Not everyone, of course, will agree—and there will no doubt be scholarship and passion on both sides. “Contentious, spirited, and wonderful, with a huge, huge heart—that’s Gardiner,” says Hayes. “I was at a party last week, a very Gardiner party, and it was people from both ends of the political spectrum and everywhere in the middle—mixing it up and having a blast. Bipartisanship is a way of life here—just add vodka!”

Bruynswick Art Studio and Gallery (845) 255-5693
Café Mio
Gardiner Association of Businesses
HiHo Home Market
Kiss My Face
Mountain Brauhaus
Skydive The Ranch
Town of Gardiner
Tuthilltown Spirits
Uptown Attic
Village Market and Bakery

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