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Poughkeepsie: Strong at Heart

The Queen City's Economic Resurgence Forges Ahead Despite Pandemic Setbacks

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Last Updated: 02/09/2021 12:39 pm
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Ira Lee, owner of Twisted Soul, a fusion restaurant located near Vassar College on Raymond Avenue. Twisted Soul is only offering pick-up service during the pandemic. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • Ira Lee, owner of Twisted Soul, a fusion restaurant located near Vassar College on Raymond Avenue. Twisted Soul is only offering pick-up service during the pandemic.

This time last year, Poughkeepsie was at an inflection point. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic descended, the city was buzzing with development, new businesses, and growth. The community was also bolstered by the civic and social support of a cadre of dynamic nonprofits, and it seemed that a long period of economic struggle was at last subsiding. Then, you know, COVID. Progress in Poughkeepsie, however, has not been derailed, thanks to the people who have pushed too long and hard to let the city backslide. The past year has been emotional and exhausting, but Poughkeepsie's stakeholders have found a way to fight through. They just work harder.

City of Healers

City of Healers

Poughkeepsie is a hospital town, with Vassar Brothers Medical Center (VBMC) in its center and Mid-Hudson Hospital just outside the city limits. The city is slung with banners honoring healthcare workers and a popular statue of a masked nurse standing resolute, sculpted by artist Nestor Madalengoitia, guarded the entrance of VBMC, before relocating to the Dutchess County Office Building. "I think, as a community, we feel comforted by the fact we have two amazing hospitals centered in our community," says Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison. "On a personal level, I'm concerned for healthcare workers and the stress they're under. I came down with COVID-19 the Monday before Thanksgiving. My experience was certainly not as bad as others. I was very lucky. It showed me the fragility of life. We need to take the time to thank one another."

In the midst of the pandemic, and after years of construction, on January 9, VBMC opened their massive new Patient Pavilion building complex. The $500-million project brings new space and resources to the hospital at a vital time as COVID case numbers continue to rise. "It's an amazing facility with all private rooms, so that immediately addresses needs for isolation and capacity," said Dr. William Begg, vice president of medical affairs at VBMC. "The new patient pavilion just adds an advanced location that will help us provide the level of healthcare our community deserves."

A view of the Mount Carmel neighborhood and the Mid-Hudson Bridge in the distance from the eastern end of the Walkway Over the Hudson. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • A view of the Mount Carmel neighborhood and the Mid-Hudson Bridge in the distance from the eastern end of the Walkway Over the Hudson.

Begg says the staff at VBMC have faced many challenges over the past year with consummate professionalism and the community of the greater Poughkeepsie area has been continually supportive. "When the pandemic began, they came out in droves, donating food, masks—even coming by the medical center in impromptu drive-by salutes to our healthcare workers. It's an incredible feeling to get that kind of support, and it really energized all of us," Begg said. "I feel like we're closer in many ways. Despite many challenges, we've developed relationships with local public officials and we've ventured out into the community with educational seminars. We've done two virtual town halls about COVID-19 featuring members of our medical staff as panelists, and we plan to do more this year, beginning with some education about vaccines."

COVID Curbs a Comeback

COVID Curbs a Comeback

Major economic development projects like the hospital expansion, the creation of a hotel and conference center on the Vassar College campus, Queen City Lofts, One Dutchess, Poughkeepsie Landing, and others saw their build-outs slowed but not stopped by COVID restrictions. In January, the Academy mixed-use development got underway in earnest. That project will establish a coworking space, coffee shop, food hall, brewery, fresh foods market, teaching kitchen, and event space, with apartments on the upper floors on Academy Street. The continuation of these projects signals investor confidence in Poughkeepsie, in spite of current circumstances.

The Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie. For the spring semester, Vassar will pursue its “island” model for students once they begin returning this month. Once on campus, students are expected to remain on campus for the duration of the semester. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • The Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie. For the spring semester, Vassar will pursue its “island” model for students once they begin returning this month. Once on campus, students are expected to remain on campus for the duration of the semester.

Other hospitality-based projects that opened in the beginning of last year have struggled, however. In early 2020, a new go-kart and arcade facility, RPM, opened at the Galleria Mall. Jim and Gina Sullivan, developers of the 40 Cannon complex, opened the Revel 32 nightclub and events space. Legendary sandwich shop Rossi's Deli opened a second location in the Eastdale Village development. The brewing industry was also roaring with the success Mill House Brewing Company, Blue Collar Brewery, and Plan Bee Farm Brewery, and the recently opened Zeus Brewing Company.

God’s Grace Too!! is located on a stretch of Main Street with many Mexican, Caribbean, and soul food restaurants. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • God’s Grace Too!! is located on a stretch of Main Street with many Mexican, Caribbean, and soul food restaurants.

Most businesses in the city continue to limp along, waiting for more Payroll Protection Plan stimulus from the government, but some, like the Bowtie Cinema project, are on hold, as the state of the movie theater industry is dire. Restaurants are in a particularly mercurial quagmire, with those who have robust takeout options doing okay while fine dining establishments that are more experiential, like Brasserie 292, are losing more and more footing by the day. Brasserie owner and chef Charles Fells is frustrated by the way the narrative around COVID's spread has focused so much on restaurants.

"It seems like we've pigeonholed restaurants as the source of COVID, and that's really sad," says Fells. "No one in our business wants to get people sick. I don't know how people think it's so much worse than the grocery store. Ninety percent of our menu doesn't travel well. We are still doing limited-capacity seating with spacing. We put up Plexiglas around the booths and got a whole new HVAC system. We've followed every guideline. It's nuts."

The Elting Building, on Main Street, houses Brasserie 292, owned by Charles Fells, who’s frustrated by the way the narrative around COVID’s spread has focused so much on restaurants. “It seems like we’ve pigeonholed restaurants as the source of COVID, and that’s really sad,” says Fells. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • The Elting Building, on Main Street, houses Brasserie 292, owned by Charles Fells, who’s frustrated by the way the narrative around COVID’s spread has focused so much on restaurants. “It seems like we’ve pigeonholed restaurants as the source of COVID, and that’s really sad,” says Fells.

Fells says if there is another total shutdown, without Payroll Protection or substantial government stimulus, he won't be able to keep the restaurant open. He added that he's already done everything possible to stay open and keep his employees paid, including remortgaging his house. "Aid gets tied up in Washington because it's too political. It's not about what's best for the country, it's about what's best for political careers," Fells says. "If the shutdown and regulations were handled federally from the beginning I wouldn't be in this position."

A Housing Boom with Pros and Cons

While existing Poughkeepsie businesses are struggling, it is proving to be a good time to start a new venture in the city, as entrepreneurs see a post-pandemic clientele eager to get back out and socialize.

Industrial and commercial real estate agent Don Minichino of Houlihan Lawrence has years of professional experience in economic development and says he still approaches his work from that perspective. Minichino says that the hot residential real estate—fueled by New York City exiles—is the basis for future opportunities on the commercial front.

"I live in downtown Poughkeepsie and it's where my heart is," he says. "There are two sides to the story right now. I'm seeing food businesses sell to recoup some value back from all their hard work. On the other side of the coin, I have restaurant spaces I have been able to lease to people who want to rehab them now, for new eateries when this is over. There are a lot of people sitting at home looking to turn their dreams into reality."

Cottage Street in Poughkeepsie is home to a number of manufacturing businesses, like 4th State Metals, a fabrication facility that works with architects and artists. Left to right: Ben Kane, Isaac Zal, Blake Burba, Dave Markusen Weiss, and Lauren Fix. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • Cottage Street in Poughkeepsie is home to a number of manufacturing businesses, like 4th State Metals, a fabrication facility that works with architects and artists. Left to right: Ben Kane, Isaac Zal, Blake Burba, Dave Markusen Weiss, and Lauren Fix.

"I live in downtown Poughkeepsie and it's where my heart is," he says. "There are two sides to the story right now. I'm seeing food businesses sell to recoup some value back from all their hard work. On the other side of the coin, I have restaurant spaces I have been able to lease to people who want to rehab them now, for new eateries when this is over. There are a lot of people sitting at home looking to turn their dreams into reality."

The robust real estate market, however, means higher rents and fewer options for the housing insecure. Lack of work and opportunities has only seen that community's numbers grow. Along with managing scores of low-income housing units and a portfolio of community aid programs, Hudson River Housing runs the only homeless shelter in Dutchess County. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has made that difficult endeavor even more challenging.

"We didn't want to be in a position to have to turn anyone away, and we realized our existing facility was not the best site," says Hudson River Housing Executive Director Crista Hines, of the early days of COVID-19. The county made a vacant facility on the grounds of the Dutchess County Jail available, and while the organization was initially concerned about the connotations and image the location would send to their clientele, Hines says it has been a major upgrade for the folks they serve. Hygiene and food service accommodations are greatly improved and capacity increased so the organization could safely shelter 150 people. Sadly, the larger capacity has been needed as they are regularly housing 110 individuals a night, up from 60 this time last year.

Carmen is a self-described “panhandler” who is so well known for sitting at the corner of Main and Catherine Streets that the mayor had a sign put up declaring the spot to be “Carmen’s Corner.” - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • Carmen is a self-described “panhandler” who is so well known for sitting at the corner of Main and Catherine Streets that the mayor had a sign put up declaring the spot to be “Carmen’s Corner.”
PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre

"The challenges our clients are facing have been exacerbated by the pandemic," Hines says. "Those with serious drug issues have had a more difficult time accessing counseling. There have been more overdoses than we have seen in forever. Services are available, but they are harder to access remotely."

Hudson River Housing also does a lot for those struggling to keep up with the cost of their apartments and homes. In April, the organization opened 78 new low-income housing units in Poughkeepsie and are working every day to develop more in a city currently with a one-percent vacancy rate. While the work they've accomplished has been a great value for the community they serve, looming is the ever-present, growing need. Hines says they receive over 100 applications for housing a month. "We were in a housing crisis before the pandemic and this has pushed it over the edge. Any available housing is getting gobbled up," Hines says. "I think things are going okay, but we are kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop with the economic impact of COVID."

The situation has driven the fair market value of a one-bedroom apartment in Poughkeepsie to an untenable $1,200 a month, she adds. To combat this, Hudson River Housing is working on increasing their rent relief programs and those in need are encouraged to visit the organization's website to learn more about that and many other programs servicing vulnerable citizens.

A Republican's Pride for a Protest and the Shame of a Coup

Through the summer, Poughkeepsie also became a regional epicenter for protests demanding remedy for racial inequality. Thousands marched peacefully through the city in June, lending their voices to the national outrage over the shooting of George Floyd and all people of color unfairly and unequally targeted, harassed, and killed by police.

Black Lives Matter rallies focused the public lens on the city's own police reform efforts. Mayor Rolison says the Poughkeepsie Police Department has embraced procedural justice reform and implicit bias training for their officers. "We understand how important this is and we know we have more to do," says Rolison.

In contrast to the positive power of the BLM protests, I happened to speak with the mayor less than 48 hours after Trump extremists stormed the Capitol building in Washington on January 6. The deadly, shambolic coup attempt was still very much front of mind and had Rolison thinking about the local impact of inflammatory partisanship. "This event at the Capitol was four years in the making and shame on [President Trump] for keeping it going and having this ill-advised rally. When you belittle people and call them names, it accomplishes nothing. We've been way beyond the breaking point for a while," Rolison says, emotion rising in his usually even-toned voice. "Unfortunately, with the dysfunction in Washington, it trickles down to the local level and the partisanship becomes normalized. I'm a Republican, elected mayor twice in a Democratic city. I don't care about political party anymore. As mayor, it does not matter. It only matters what you do. We need to find a way to disagree without being angry. Personally, I'm recommitting myself to doing a better job."

Saving the Culture

Poughkeepsie's civic identity and cultural vibrancy is bolstered by art venues and organizations that have been hit hard. The Art Effect is an organization that works with young people to express themselves, impact their community, and find tangible pathways to careers, through art. At the beginning of lockdown in March, that mission was initially hampered by not being able to meet in person, but they have persisted and found new pathways to success.

"We were, like so many, hit pretty hard because our programing primarily reaches youth through the schools," says Art Effect Executive Director Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt. "I felt right away the lack of engagement opportunities for youth. We did a lot we haven't done before. Every [art-based] business and agency has a different story. It's heartbreaking to see institutions, like the Bardavon, shuttered for so long. There are fewer and much different opportunities for art right now, but the community in general has been so supportive." Fenichel-Hewitt says public art like Madalengoitia's nurse sculpture and street art created during the BLM demonstrations helped bring people together.

The Dove, a mural by Nestor Madalengoitia on Main Street. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • The Dove, a mural by Nestor Madalengoitia on Main Street.

Art Effect emphasizes creating pathways to employment in the arts, and while the pandemic stifled many opportunities for program participants, the organization's paid apprenticeship program with local video production house Forge Media presented an avenue for youth to work on media content for local businesses and organizations who needed content and virtual events as they themselves shifted online.

Before the pandemic, Art Effect had just opened their new Trolley Barn Gallery in the restored historic city building on Main Street. While COVID threw a spanner in the works, the Trolley Barn has proven an asset for instruction, as it was large enough for youth to spread out and have 12 young people working in their own art in socially distanced studio areas.

Youth have also been working with Mary-Kay Lombino, deputy director and curator at Vassar's Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, to curate and run the Art Effect's first international juried art show, which will include art from around the world selected by the kids, as well as some of their own powerful pieces. The show is titled "Homesick" and addresses the raw experience of the pandemic. Fenichel-Hewitt says the artists have created powerful works inspired by these unprecedented times. The exhibition will be on display from February 25 through April 1.  

Queen City 15 is a member-run art gallery on Main Street. The sculpture in the window is Gnome Lisa by Lisa Winika. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • Queen City 15 is a member-run art gallery on Main Street. The sculpture in the window is Gnome Lisa by Lisa Winika.

Perhaps the only thing that hasn't changed during the pandemic is the natural beauty that surrounds the city. Scenic Hudson's projects to protect, rehabilitate, and restore natural resources throughout the city, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, continued through 2020 and provided outdoor spaces for residents to safely escape lockdown.

"Scenic Hudson is committed to helping create healthy, livable, and sustainable communities that reflect the visions of people living in them," says Zoraida Lopez-Diago, the director of Scenic Hudson's River Cities Program. "This is so incredibly important on Poughkeepsie's Northside, long plagued by racial, economic, and environmental inequality. Many Northside residents expressed the need to restore local Pershing Avenue and Malcolm X parks, making them safer and more inviting. At Pershing Avenue, construction is underway on a neighborhood farm that will increase access to fresh food—by providing plots for residents to grow produce and through an educational farm whose output will be shared with thousands of families via Dutchess Outreach."

Dominique Manfrede is a hula hoop influencer (@hoopsy_domo) with a large following who practices daily at Upper Landing Park. - PHOTO BY DAVID MCINTYRE
  • Photo by David McIntyre
  • Dominique Manfrede is a hula hoop influencer (@hoopsy_domo) with a large following who practices daily at Upper Landing Park.

With so many people, businesses, and organizations working so hard to adapt to a COVID world, Poughkeepsie appears to be winning its war with the pandemic. It hasn't been easy. There have been many losses—and there will still be more—but this is a city that's use to fighting and accustomed to setbacks. While some of Poughkeepsie's plans for the future have been delayed, it's clear the community will not be denied.

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