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October 25, 2016
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Whenever one door closes…

As reported in last week’s newspaper, the board of the Sullivan West Central School District has returned developer Ilwon Kang’s deposit on the Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley school properties. That marks the end of one deal. But it should be remembered that the Kang offer—which would have involved the purchase of the properties by outside investors described as belonging to the entertainment and recreation industry—was one of two the board received back in November of 2010. Indeed, there was considerable contention at the time as to whether it should be preferred over another deal put forth by local Dick Riseling, a sustainable energy and local agriculture activist. Though the original Riseling offer per se is not still on the table, we think it may provide an alternative model that should be reconsidered.

We have argued more than once on this editorial page against a certain type of local planning mindset that seems to favor infatuations with wealthy corporate outsiders over the encouragement of in-county, bootstraps development. The demise of the Kang deal—of which there have been intimations for months, ever since the never-concluded sale of the school field on Kirk Road, whose failure was never really publicly explained—is a reminder that however plausible and attractive such outside investment might seem, it is not necessarily always the wisest way to go.

Riseling’s plan gives us one model of what an alternative might look like. As described by him in an op-ed dated December 30, 2010, his plan for the Narrowsburg school, based on more than 30 conversations with local organizations and businesses, was “to create a venue that was simultaneously a locus for community services and a tourist destination.” It would have included sports opportunities, performances in the gym-stage complex, lease of the kitchen for community food fabrication and classes, a micro-creamery, “rent of rooms for music practice; offices and educational space for environmental and other civic groups; craft and art cooperatives; a year-round farmers’ market; and retail space for the sale of products produced by the tenants.”

Financially, the plan was presented as a two-year lease-purchase, in which the syndicate would have taken over all maintenance expenses and made payments to the school district starting immediately, with a contractual guarantee that at the end of that period, all units and the school as a whole would be completely bought out and ownership transferred.

We liked this plan because it would have engaged a variety of local stakeholders in areas that are proven bulwarks of the local economy, participating in a project that would have provided them with a venue to expand and develop. Meanwhile, it would keep the school the essential community center it has been in the past. In short, it was most emphatically in keeping with the town’s comprehensive plan, not only in maintaining rural character, but in promoting appropriate economic development.

Most likely it was the financial structure that led the school district to prefer the Kang deal, which, if it had gone through as planned, would have involved immediate, full payment to the school district of the purchase price. But the whole issue of purchase price is one thing that, as noted in our news story “Kang abandons Narrowsburg,” last week, has probably changed dramatically. Legislation passed on April 1 that takes away any taxpayer benefit that might be realized from the sale of the properties. As our article noted, “Because of the law, [Superintendent Hilton] said, ‘If we get $1 million dollars for the buildings, next year our state aid will be cut by $1 million dollars; if we get $1 our state aid is cut by $1.’”

School board member Noel van Swol has suggested asking our legislators to help us circumvent this problem, and we certainly wouldn’t argue against trying to do so. But if that turns out not to be possible, the potential financial advantage of an outside investor group over a local syndicate pretty much disappears.

We would also note that, when the Kang bid was first accepted, various local agencies like the IDA rallied round with promises of special perks and support in terms of tax deals and the like. Offer similar help to a local syndicate deal and it’s hard to see why such a thing shouldn’t be able to succeed and prosper.

They say that one when door closes, another opens. We think the end of the Kang deal is an open door to the type of self-sufficient, self-sustaining model of development that we think provides our area’s best hopes for the future. If we put our thinking caps on and join forces, perhaps we can get something remarkable done.