Sullivan County sure has a lot to celebrate this year, its 200th birthday.
Mountains that touch the vast blue sky. Fields and forests so green and rich. Flowing rivers, blue lakes and more rushing streams than you can count. Some of the most passionate and talented people around.
But as anyone who lives here knows, Sullivan's future is not as inspiring as that lush landscape. Empty storefronts fill our largest eastern towns. Enrollment in every school district except one is plummeting. Our kids are leaving Sullivan because there aren't many good jobs.
So I asked you for suggestions for Sullivan's future. And boy, did you come up with answers. They did not, for the most part, include Sullivan's long-promised but never-delivered savior, a casino.
But virtually all included something Sullivan has, but hasn't taken advantage of — a plan. It's a plan — Sullivan 2020 — that aims to take advantage of its wide open spaces.
Or as Andy Weil of Summitville writes:
"Agri-tourism is what young and not-so-young want today. Not the empty promise of 'winning it big' (casinos)."
Weil mentions such attractions as the D&H Canal Park, the Basha Kill Wildlife Preserve and "easy access to several well-known trout streams."
And that's just in Sullivan's gateway town, Mamakating.
"I have lived here most of my 71 years and the era of the resort is gone," writes Doris Booth of Thompsonville. "I think local government is stuck in a time warp. All they think about is resorts."
How about capitalizing on some of Sullivan's living history, writes Barbara Hahl of Roscoe. With her senior club, she visits all sorts of places and learns so much about local history.
Why not here?
"...the Minisink Battlefield, Fort Delaware, the fly fishing, the hotels of the Borscht Belt, and especially the golden egg of them all, Bethel Woods ... I'll bet they would love to see an eagle soar while enjoying a picnic lunch at Stone Arch Park (in Jeffersonville) or Lake Superior (in Bethel)."
The tours would create jobs in restaurants and hotels, says Hahl, and that would mean sales and room tax.
Speaking of taxes...
Sullivan should lower its rates, says Robert Donahue of Fallsburg. Donahue, who wants casinos "for "the jobs and tourism (that) will be the greatest economic boom the county has ever seen," also wants Sullivan to make every landowner pay taxes.
As for desolate downtowns?
Monticello's Pete Gozza, the former executive director of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, says Sullivan must make itself a place others want to visit. And that means cleaning up the litter along roads, sprucing up downtowns with something as simple as flowers and creating business improvement districts for more security, maintenance and beautification — just like they're doing in Middletown or Albany.
"How long are we going to wait for the silver bullet?" he asks. "We've got to change this place ourselves. Then the investment community takes notice."
Sullivan already has so much. Its 200th birthday is the perfect time to spiff itself up, put its plan in action and celebrate itself to the world.
Steve Israel's column appears Mondays. Reach him at [email protected].