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Hudson Tourism Boom Puts Economic Pressure On Residents

The city of Hudson in New York’s Columbia County has experienced a surge in tourism in recent years. High-end hotels, restaurants and galleries cater to visitors from New York City and beyond. The boom has put the small city on the map, but community leaders say what some consider progress is taking an economic toll on residents. 

Hudson has a history of boom and bust. It has been home to successful shipping and manufacturing sectors during its more than 200-year history. The community on the shores on the Hudson River reached its peak of population and notoriety in the first half of the 20th century, with 12,000 residents listed in the 1930 census and a national reputation as a center for illegal gambling and prostitution.

Hudson was in a state of slow post-industrial decline for about 40 years beginning in the 1960’s, until a surge of business arrived along its main thoroughfare, Warren Street, which began with a small number of artists and antique shops in the early 2000s. The city’s combination of well-preserved historic architecture and proximity to New York City– close enough for day travel but far enough to be considered an upstate country escape – has made it tourist magnet.

“The renaissance in Hudson, from what I saw, kind of started in Warren Street, pretty much, around 4th and 6th Street," said Jeffrey Rovitz, a Hudson resident and executive director of the Mental Health Association of Columbia-Greene Counties, which provides a variety of social services throughout Hudson and the surrounding area. "You’d get all these antique stores coming in, and all these really lovely art galleries, and these wonderful restaurants. And then, it started to go further downtown, and started to hit some of the parallel streets.”

Rovitz says the influx of second-home owners and affluent visitors has increased the cost of living, especially housing rates, for everyone. 

“And so, everything became more expensive. Rents became more expensive, housing became more expensive. So that kind of increased the disparity some, and didn’t allow people who had been here a long time to rent from, or even try and buy, because the prices were simply too high. And it just kept going up and up," said Rovitz.

Rovitz and other community leaders have been spearheading an effort to keep affordable housing available in Hudson, but so far it has been an uphill battle. 

“Your rent was two years ago $650 and now it’s $1,250," said community organizer and First Ward Alderman Kamal Johnson. "That’s a big difference that a lot of people can’t afford. Or even if you’re told you have three months to move out, because now your apartment building is becoming an AirBnB, where an owner can get what they paid for rent in a weekend, for making an AirBnB. And that’s what people who are coming here for the weekend are looking for, those type of places, so that creates a huge divide in housing, because as someone who owns something, you are looking for that profit, and that’s where your focus is.”

Wait times for affordable housing in Hudson can run more than two years in some cases. Some people have moved to surrounding areas such as Philmont and Greenport, where the Mental Health Association has constructed a new apartment complex for those struggling with poverty or mental illness.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration awarded Hudson one of the state’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants in August 2017, expectations in the community were high for projects that would benefit all walks of life.

Instead, the money is mostly going towards upgrades in the tourist sections of the city, with only 8 percent of the money being dedicated to housing – a mixed-use, mixed-income building on State Street. Joan Hunt of the Promise Neighborhood community organization was on the local planning committee that put together a number of proposals for what to do with the $10 million.

“I think people heard ‘the money’ and didn’t really hear what the purpose was behind the DRI, and there was a lot of confusion around whether or not it could support a housing initiative. Who was this for? So a lot of members in the community we serve felt like this money was not going to serve their need whatsoever. And that it was only again supporting the tourism industry in Hudson and folks that were already benefiting from that," said Hunt.

The lion’s share of the DRI has been allotted to general city projects, such as street, sidewalk and crosswalk improvements, new parks and upgrades to current parks. But the fact that much of the grant went to bolster the tourism industry left Hunt and other community members disappointed.

“I think that the process was a challenge for many of us that were on the local planning commission. There’s so many different perspectives at the table, and so many ideas that were presented, some were funded, some were not. I think at the end of the day my role in that work was to represent the families that we serve at Promise Neighborhood. We did not feel that the voices of those families were heard in that process, so I think there was a lot of frustration around that. There were also people that were very happy with the outcomes. I think if you talk to our local government, they’re thrilled at having Hudson put on the map in this way, and getting some of the funding to revitalize the downtown," said Hunt.

Meanwhile, the dramatic resurgence of Warren Street continues. In May, a large hotel opened in a former candle factory, with financing from the DRI initiative, and another luxury hotel is set to open in 2019. This will bring the number of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the city to more than 20. There are more than 50 AirBnB properties, as well as almost 50 restaurants, most of which cater to a high-end clientele.

Jeffrey Hunt, no relation to Joan Hunt, is the Executive Director of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. He says that the booming tourism industry is a benefit to the city, as visitors tend to spend. 

“They’re buying products and services, they’re buying goods, they’re staying at our hotels, they’re going to our restaurants, they’re going to our venues. They’re going to support these areas which sometimes our locals cannot. So there’s a fine balance," said Hunt.

Hunt, of the Chamber of Commerce, added that Warren Street has been a source of employment for Hudson residents.

“You know, we have a relatively low unemployment rate. And many of the individuals here are taking advantage, they’re working in the hotel or hospitality industry. They’re working in the restaurant industry. Where they may not be able to work 40 hours, they’re working 60 hours by working two jobs. That’s helping people sustain themselves in our community. Overall, I think a balance is needed. But I think the tourism numbers are a good thing for us, and we need to should be supportive of the community, to continue to have people come up, and spend their dollars in our area," said Jeffrey Hunt.

Joan Hunt believes the rapid cultural shift has left residents feeling like second-class citizens.

“Feeling that you’re not welcome, in the city where you grew up," said Joan Hunt. "We have families all the time who say ‘I’m not going on Warren Street on the weekends.’ ‘I don’t feel like this is my place anymore.’ They may be looked at strangely by tourists, whatever it is, they don’t feel welcome. Even a few years, ago, it felt to me like during the week, you’d get on Warren Street and see people you knew, but now even Wednesdays and Thursdays, the influx is even more during the week. So it’s not even during the weekend, it’s all the time now that there are people here that are visiting. Which is great for them, but that has an impact on people. At Promise Neighborhood we work mostly with residents that have families that have been here for a very long time, so we hear these statements often.”

“I think for someone who lives here, it feels like overnight," said Kamal Johnson. "It feels like it happened very fast. And, it creates distrust from the residents to the city. Because we have Warren Street – it’s booming. Everything that people grew up – like the places they grew up eating at, the hangouts, they’re all gone, and they’re replaced with these high-scale restaurants, and for the average resident, they’ve never set foot in probably 90 percent of the establishments on Warren Street.”

Jeffrey Hunt says he recognizes what some community leaders see as a growing divide between residents and Warren Street in Hudson, but added that he believes the resurgence of the small city into a Mecca for the creative and affluent has led to a net benefit for the city.

“We’re also seeing an increase in terms of a bed tax, from Hudson, from people who are staying in bed and breakfasts, and AirBnBs, and now The Wick. That’s helping our economy, and then we’re seeing an increase in sales tax. So, ultimately, some of the tax burden is shifting from residents to people who are coming to visit us. So to say, now that we’re isolated, I guess I get a sense of what they’re saying, but I think our community should be welcoming to visitors and tourists, because they are bringing additional resources to our area," said Jeffrey Hunt.

Despite a situation that some believe is not sustainable, community leaders are optimistic about Hudson. Organizations like the Mental Health Association and Promise Neighborhood, alongside others such as Columbia Opportunities Incorporated, run programs to help the 25 percent of city residents who struggle with poverty. Problems with funding, however, continue to hinder their efforts, especially in regard to staffing, as many of the local businesses that do donate to community organizations in Hudson expect their money to be used for individual programs, instead of for general funding. Jeffrey Rovitz and Kamal Johnson both believe the entire city of Hudson would benefit if more of the businesses and individuals profiting from Warren Street’s tourism boom, as well as the affluent visitors coming to town for the weekend, would give back to the community.

“For those people that are visiting Hudson, and have some disposable income, it’s fun. And they’re not doing anything wrong, they’re enjoying coming up for the weekend, and it’s lovely for them. But, I’m not sure if they’re aware of the impact that they’ve had on longstanding residents, and, somehow, and who knows how to get the word out here, it would be nice if they at least understood that they’re having a serious impact, and maybe do something nice for the community. Give to some non-profits, and just, do something to get involved in issues that are affecting the people who live here," said Rovitz.

"Don’t just come here for the antiques and the coffee," said Kamal Johnson. "Come here for the possibilities as well, and understand that anything can make a drastic difference.”

Will Anderson is a News Intern at WAMC. He is a third-year student at McGill University.

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