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The Arts Lead Poughkeepsie's Transformation

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View from the penthouse at 40 Cannon Street. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • View from the penthouse at 40 Cannon Street.

In 2015, Roy Budnik bought a derelict building on Poughkeepsie's Main Street, next to another building he owns. A month after buying it, Budnik was out front on a warm fall day, painting the façade. He remembers a group of high school students walking by and taking notice that someone was working, in some small way, to do something positive in their community. "Do something for us!" one of the teens shouted. "I used that as my mantra," says Budnik, who's been working to restore and reopen the historic Trolley Barn ever since. "We designed it with a lot of glass in front so kids walking by could see what's going on and feel invited to come in."

Since the announcement last March of $1 million in Restore New York Communities funding for the 11,000-square-foot space, Budnik has been very busy, building out the latest arm of the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, a community arts and culture nonprofit firmly rooted in the Middle Main heart of downtown. The Center, which Budnik founded in 2010, will run the Trolley Barn as one of four event spaces. Art Centro, located right next door at 485 Main, is a pottery studio with classes, studios, gallery space, and events. Glebe House, at 635 Main, is city-owned and being developed as a history center. Nearby, the PUF (Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory) Studios offer printmaking facilities and classes. At 489 Main Street, the Trolley Barn is poised to take center stage as a huge multi-arts facility. "Phase I is complete," Budnik says. "The whole building is going to be the centerpiece of a dedicated arts campus."

Anita Fina Kiewra, studio manager, and Emilie Houssart, studio assistant at PUF Print Studios at the Underwear Factory. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • Anita Fina Kiewra, studio manager, and Emilie Houssart, studio assistant at PUF Print Studios at the Underwear Factory.

Phase I included the build out of the front 3,000 square feet with bathrooms, offices, and gallery/event space, restoration of the facade, and installation of utilities. Phase II will include finishing out an apartment for use by artists and renovation of the 9,000-square-foot main trolley room and 2,000-square-foot annex. The final phase will be renovation of the basement/lower level to include a small black-box theater and additional gallery space.

The arts community is at the center of the current wave or revitalization that's taking place in the Queen City. "I've been here 30 years," says Budnik. "We're seeing a big influx of artists moving from New York City and Beacon, where they're being priced out." (Underwear Factory Studio Manager Anita Fina Kierwa fondly refers to the newcomers as "Poughkipsters.") Half a dozen art galleries have opened in the last year, most recently Cryptic Gallery at 357 Main Street, which focuses on New Contemporary art. The arts community have also banded together for First Fridays, a once-monthly city-wide celebration of the arts.

Angelo, Anthony, and Jimmy of Siegrist Construction working at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center on Main Street. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • Angelo, Anthony, and Jimmy of Siegrist Construction working at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center on Main Street.

"The last 18 months have been very positive—a perfect storm of collaboration among politicians, nonprofits, and developers—but it's the artists who've really spurred this along," says Harvey Flad. "They've produced the kind of energy necessary to create a belief system that the city can revitalize itself." Flad would know, he's lived in Poughkeepsie for 40 years and wrote a book on the city, Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie (SUNY Press, 2010). "Places like the Trolley Barn and the Underwear Factory are important to really draw people to spend some time in Poughkeepsie," says Flad. "These are places where community can meet and do activities—that's what makes a city work."

John Lekic, a restaurateur who is bullish on the city's prospects, echoes Flad's sentiment. "Restaurants are needed not because we need food and drink but because we need gathering spaces," says Lekic, who opened Farmers & Chefs in the Little Italy section of Poughkeepsie last summer. The neighborhood has seen a culinary renaissance in recent years with the opening of eateries like Essie's, Nic L Inn Bistro and Wine Bar, and Casablanca, adding to local institutions like Caffe Aurora and La Deliziosa Bakery.

Money Pouring In

What also makes a dormant city spring to life is construction, and Poughkeepsie has a lot of projects underway, nearly $2 billion worth. There's the $500-million Vassar Brothers Medical Center expansion, which is well underway. Also on the health front, the Marist Health Quest School of Medicine will launch in 2022. The planned medical school will feature a state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the Vassar Brothers Medical Center campus, expected to cost $70 to $80 million; special purpose facilities at Marist College; and a faculty of about 100. The class matriculating in 2022 is expected to number 60, with capacity doubling to 120 by 2028; by that time, between students, residents, and faculty, the school is expected to add about 1,000 people to the region's population. (Studies show that 20 to 25 percent of new doctors set up shop and practice in the region where they train—a boon to the region.)

Albino Curcio, Carmelo Petula, Emily Paonessa, and Angelo Incoruaia at Caffe Aurora. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • Albino Curcio, Carmelo Petula, Emily Paonessa, and Angelo Incoruaia at Caffe Aurora.

Around the corner from the Bardavon Opera House, a cornerstone of the city's cultural landscape that's celebrating its 150th anniversary this month—is 40 Cannon, an adaptive reuse project that speaks to confluence of artistic and entrepreneurial energy currently in Poughkeepsie. Built in 1915, the Kings Court Hotel was a Poughkeepsie icon: a home-away-from-home for the artists and prima donnas playing the Bardavon and a stopping point for wealthy folk on business trips up from the city. Converted to rambling apartments in 1970 and gutted by fire in 2011, many thought the fine old brick structure was ready to give up the ghost. Enter Jim and Gina Sullivan of the James J. Sullivan Corporation, who'd been renovating Poughkeepsie spaces since 2010. They bought 40 Cannon Street in 2013, and the mixed-use development began admitting tenants in 2018.

The renovation of the historic building maintains original exposed brick, wood floors, a sweeping marble staircase, and many other period details, lending majesty to a modern setting. The building's 47 studio and one-bedroom apartments were rented almost instantly; only one of two lavish tri-level penthouses remains open. Residents are a mix: about half locals looking to relocate, half newcomers from all over, drawn to 40 Cannon by its amenities: gated parking, laundry rooms on each floor, communal outdoor spaces, grand lobby, gym, sauna, library, views, bike storage, yoga space, on-site management, and a community feel.

Downstairs, the Sullivans curated a careful selection of businesses to nurture the cultural and practical needs of the local community. Gallery 40 hosts exhibitions of local artwork ("The Sublime and The Beautiful" is currently on view) and this spring, the 1915 Wine Cellar, an upscale global wine bar, will open up shop in the basement. King's Court Brewery, a microbrewery and taproom, has been serving on the ground floor for several months. (Owners Cortlandt Toczyloski and Caroline Bergelin live upstairs.) King's Court is a generalist brewery. "Our whole mantra is, we don't do just one kind of beer," says Bergelin. "We have something new every Thursday. And we have a honey ale for people who don't like beer at all."

Cortlandt Toczylowski, owner and headbrewer, and Caroline Bergelin, owner, graphics and sales, at King’s Court Brewing Company. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • Cortlandt Toczylowski, owner and headbrewer, and Caroline Bergelin, owner, graphics and sales, at King’s Court Brewing Company.

Other residential projects in the city include Poughkeepsie Landing, a public-private partnership between Poughkeepsie machers the Bonura family and the city to redevelop a former industrial site on the waterfront north of the train station. The site will include 50 luxury apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail, and a publicly accessible riverfront promenade.

Currently in the midst of construction, Queen City Lofts is a LEED-certified complex that will host 70 apartments, all of which will be rented below market rate on the corner of Main and South Bridge Streets, 50 of which were set aside for artists. A lottery in January allotted the apartments.

The Holy Grail

The flip side of revitalization—and the focal point of anxiety for communities throughout the region—is gentrification. While all the city residents we interviewed for this piece expressed optimism in the direction Poughkeepsie was headed, there was an undercurrent of concern about not falling into the too-much-too-quick trap that's bedeviled other Hudson Valley towns. "There's a quickening pace to projects, initiatives, and change. And as much as we want to see positive change, we're hyper aware of securing inclusive and equitable outcomes from that change," says Elizabeth Celaya, Hudson River Housing's director of strategic initiatives. "The holy grail of revitalization is to do so without gentrification—and no one has gotten it right yet. It's real, and it's not something we can deal with down the road. When change happens, it happens in a blink of an eye. We need to put policy and regulations in place that will safeguard our community."

One idea to combat gentrification put forward by Poughkeepsie Common Councilmember Sarah Brannen (among others), is to create a land bank, as has been done with success in Newburgh and Albany. (Land banks are non-profits organizations authorized by the state to acquire title to vacant and abandoned properties in and transfer ownership in an equitable manner). "We're behind the curve on this," says Brannen. "There are more 500 vacant properties in the city—we could focus on rehabbing historic properties." Governor Cuomo recently signed a bill expanding the number of land banks allowed in the state from 25 to 35. Given its vacant buildings, homeless population, and housing crunch, Poughkeepsie would seem to be a shoo-in for the state program.

April Coal Blocker and Banicio Sanchez, in front of a mural by James Ransome at the Adriance Memorial Library. - PHOTO BY JOHN GARAY
  • Photo by John Garay
  • April Coal Blocker and Banicio Sanchez, in front of a mural by James Ransome at the Adriance Memorial Library.

"What keeps me going," says Flad, who's been involved in the city's community affairs since the 1970s, "is knowing that there are people who haven't given up and look forward to plotting the future of the city. Poughkeepsie is a small city with all the urban problems you'd expect, but at heart it's really a small town with all the small-town virtues."

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