Poughkeepsie: The Momentum of Change | Poughkeepsie | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

The seal of the City of Poughkeepsie features a swarming beehive, sitting on a low table, in a field of tall grass. The symbolism feels apt these days. Surrounded by natural beauty, the city is humming with development, activity and excitement—in a way it hasn't for more than 50 years. As pretty a picture as it may be, longtime residents worry openly about who all the recent change is actually for. Despite tension, it's clear this dynamic period has made Poughkeepsie one of the most interesting places to visit in the Hudson Valley for entertainment, dining, and culture.

Open for Business

The recent opening of new apartment and commercial properties in the city center, and the completion of the massive Vassar Brothers Hospital expansion (and major COVID migration from New York City), has driven a significant increase in more affluent residents moving to Poughkeepsie.
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David McIntyre
Vassar College is in the process of building the Vassar Institute for Liberal Arts, a $34 million hotel and conference center across from its campus on Raymond Avenue. The net- zero facility is scheduld to open in 2024.

After slogging through the past few years of the pandemic, Gina Sullivan, co-owner of Revel 32, says people have come back to the business district in droves, attending events at her venue and others like the Bardavon, the Chance, and Mid-Hudson Civic Center, before hitting up restaurants downtown like Brasserie 292, River Station, Essie's, and many others. "You should have seen it on New Year's Eve," Sullivan says. "Cannon Street was like New York City. There were so many people excited to be back out together again."

Jim and Gina Sullivan, of James J. Sullivan Corp. are a couple of the city's busiest developers. After rebuilding 40 Cannon Street into a large mixed-use apartment building, they sold it in 2022, and are now building up 47 Cannon Street, raising it from five to eight floors. "We need to get people downtown," Jim Sullivan says. "Dutchess County residents don't realize how much there is to do here."

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David McIntyre
A child playing inside the recently updated Mid-Hudson Discovery Museum (formerly the Mid- Hudson Children’s Museum).

Around the corner, another development, the Academy, has become a model for how some stakeholders see the future of the city. With apartments above, the ground floor offers a one-stop food hall, boasting the Kitchen restaurant, and numerous food stalls like Smoke, East-West, and the Flour Shop bakery alongside a market and the Hudson Hopworks Brewery.

The 47 Cannon project was recently awarded a $500,000 grant through the Empire State Development Corporation toward the establishment of a distillery supporting the support the growth of "artisan craft manufacturing." The main floor operation is estimated to cost $3.1 million of the $20 building price tag and adds to Poughkeepsie's new role as a craft beverage destination, joining Mill House Brewing Company, Blue Collar Brewery, Zeus Brewing Company, and King's Court Brewing Company.

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David McIntyre
Andrew Burgreen, executive director of the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center inside the center’s Vassar Street location.

Above the businesses, in their apartments, the Sullivans say they believe in mixed-income housing as the best way to preserve local culture and increase population density. Ten percent of housing units in their downtown buildings are designated low income.

"What about 20 percent?" says Ariel Cordova of Pancho Villa Deli and Restaurant. "All the development is good for Poughkeepsie as a whole, but politicians are tasked with insuring people like us don't get pushed out," says Cordova, who's owned his Main Street business for 25 years. "There has always been a hard-working immigrant and African American community trying to survive and thrive. The last three years there have been a lot of new monetary pressures—inflation, rent, cost of everything."

A New Chapter Begins

Elected officials are well aware of the economic pressure residents and business owners find themselves under as the Mayor's office and Common Council try to balance affordability concerns with simultaneously striking while the development iron is hot. The Common Council recently passed a Comprehensive Plan, Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, and are nearing passage of major zoning code overhaul. "It's one of the key issues of our time," says Mayor Marc Nelson of the city's gentrification. "And it's not just the City of Poughkeepsie. We have a housing crisis at all financial levels. We need to look at it holistically."

In November of 2022, with a year left in his second and final term, Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison was elected to represent the 39th district in the New York State Senate. Nelson, who had been working as city manager, was appointed to the position in January.

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David McIntyre
MaryVaughn Williams, co-owner of Canvas and Clothier, at the newly opened micro- department store on Garden Street.

In 2015, the Rolison administration inherited a budget with a $13 million deficit. "The lights were barely on in City Hall back then," says Nelson, who has led a long career in fiscal management. By the end of this year, the city is projected to finally be out of the red. This is a huge deal, the mayor stresses, because now the city's bond rating can improve, allowing it to access new borrowing opportunities for all its plans. It's hard, however, for some residents to believe there will be much positive impact on the city's predominantly minority North End community.

"My position is: Stop letting developers run the city," says Carmen McGill, who's lived in Poughkeepsie for over 40 years and is the co-founder of Celebrating the African Spirit, a nonprofit that researches and presents the history of the pivotal contributions enslaved Africans made to the construction of Poughkeepsie and the region.

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Ariel Cordova, owner of Pancho Villa Deli and Mexican Restaurant on Main Street, in front of a mural by Lady Pink on the side of his building.

McGill says Dutchess County misallocates funding in Poughkeepsie—spending $147 million to expand the jail and $12 million to refurbish the minor league baseball stadium when the money could go to direct community support and the schools. "The city has moved laterally not vertically," McGill says. "The school district is a good example. Our children remain pawns in the system. It's worse now than when my kids were there."

Children at Risk

Poughkeepsie high school currently has a 56 percent graduation rate, well bellow the state median. Nelson says Poughkeepsie's youth remains "top of mind," in all policy discussions and he's proud of what the administration has achieved in recent years.
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John David Baez making drinks at Goodnight Kenny on Academy Street.

School Superintendent Dr. Eric Jay Rosser and the mayor lead the Poughkeepsie Children's Cabinet, a collective of city youth and officials tasked with guiding local policy that effects children from "cradle to career." The common council also created a new Division of Youth Opportunity and Development and has begun converting a long-abandoned YMCA into the Youth Opportunity Union (YOU).

"So much of what happens with the kids is outside of school time," says Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt, executive director of the Art Effect, a youth-focused arts organization that operates the Trolley Barn gallery and arts center. Through Hudson River Housing, the Trolley Barn recently received a $500,000 state grant to develop a media arts studio in the historic building. The new resources will support programing geared towards developing career pathways in the arts. The Art Effect is now also the center of a Youth Empowerment Zone, established through funding by the National Education Association and last year they successfully hosted the first Youth Arts Festival.

"The art scene in Poughkeepsie is evolving and getting younger," says Jeffrey Amen, founder of Poughkeepsie Open Studios and the chair of the Public Arts Commission. "I'm really optimistic. I'm a strong supporter of art in public, it brings people together and you end up with a more inclusive society. The energy is still coming back from COVID but there is fun stuff going on. It's our job in the arts to get momentum and keep things moving."

A New Generation of Support

While long-invested stakeholders like McGill bring valuable context and insight to conversations about equitable growth, a new generation of younger community activists allow their own skepticism to be tempered with the hope that this dynamic period is an opportunity for Poughkeepsie residents to finally get a piece of the city's success.

L'Quette Taylor founded the nonprofit Community Matters 2 after organizing a number of park and street cleanups in his neighborhood and across the city in 2018. Since then, the organization has grown to include after-school education, arts and sports programs for kids, and, soon, a full STEAM-based summer camp. Taylor grew up in the North End and went to Dutchess Community College for architectural drafting. Now he works for Urban Green Builders, a development firm downtown.

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David McIntyre
A barge on the Hudson River.

"We need to prepare our children for what is coming to Poughkeepsie," says Taylor, who gave the keynote address at the Poughkeepsie High School graduation last year. "I'm optimistic to a point. I'm working on two different sides. I have relationships with developers and with my community, who think they are coming to take over. It feels like there is a separation between what's old and what's new. It is shaky right now but we have the momentum to make change."

Some areas where community improvement is visible are Poughkeepsie's parks. Both the city and Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit Scenic Hudson have invested millions in establishing and restoring parks from the North End to the riverfront. While the eventual plan for the waterfront is massive, smaller projects are already making an impact.

Nick Jackson runs the Pershing Avenue Park Neighborhood Farm, just down the street from his parents' house in the North End. The farm was started and funded by Scenic Hudson. Last year was the first full growing season at the small but bountiful farm. Jackson, with the help of volunteers, was able to grow 500 pounds of produce, which was used to feed over 200 local families. Jackson also led workshops, partnered with the Culinary Institute of America on programming, and hosted a harvest festival with live music and performances.

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Utensil Kitchenware is one of the Eastdale Village retail tenants.

Jackson says he wants to do more this year, for the farm and his neighbors. The work he's doing feels like a part of a movement. "When I started, the reaction was genuine surprise and excitement," he says. "They couldn't believe you could have something like this in a neighborhood like ours. I've always been wary of change. One of the main reasons I wanted to be involved in this project was to have a say and representation. If we are not trying to create a foothold in the midst of change, we will get swept away. People are slowly seeing there has been more investment in revitalization. It's brought out care and respect in the community."

Optimism lives on a spectrum in Poughkeepsie, but this moment in the city's history has brought a vibrancy to events and businesses that people are drawn to. Like the hive on the city seal, Poughkeepsie is buzzing.

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