The Power of You.

Photo courtesy of the Kingston Times.
Photo courtesy of the Kingston Times.

By Arthur Zaczkiewicz, MSW

News of Macy’s store closure at the Hudson Valley Mall is a serious blow to the local economy as over 70 jobs are expected to be lost. That’s on top of about 70 jobs that were eliminated when J.C. Penney shuttered its doors at the mall last year.

Facebook users expressed sadness – and confusion, too, over the announcement. How could this happen when there’s several hotels being built nearby? New hotels means business is good, right? Then there were a small handful of others who said the community who scared off Niagara bottling and its host of proposed jobs deserved this and/or was cursed. We could have used those jobs – especially in light of the Macy’s closure, right? Well, no.

While the Niagara plant proposal (and its subsequent demise), retail store closures and new hotel construction seem to be disconnected events, I would assert that they are all driven by a single, powerful – and possibly unstoppable – force: you.

Niagara Falls

As reported in great detail in the pages here, the proposed Niagara Bottling plant at Tech City was an exhaustive, emotional affair that resulted in a positive transformation of the community – especially in regard to increasing transparency.

The proposed project triggered the gathering of a strong, and unified majority that stood up against the proposal. Partnerships were formed between community groups. Meetings were held, and events staged – all lubricated by social media.

Citizens gathered and found common ground, which ultimately morphed into a single voice that clearly said this was not a suitable project. Clean, safe and readily available drinking water belongs to the people first.

It was awe-inspiring because citizens themselves made this happen. You made this happen.

Unfortunately, Niagara picked up and moved its project just two hours away, to Bloomfield, Conn. And now that community is trying to sort through many of the same issues that Kingston struggled against.

One of the key issues of the Kingston project was that of transparency and properly informing the public. How could Niagara strike a deal with city officials so stealthily? Why wasn’t the proposed project presented to the public earlier? What happened? Where’s the watchdog?

Well, that watchdog was once known as the “Fourth Estate,” which is the free press – free from censorship and influence. Years ago while working for the Times Herald-Record, as it was known then, a free press meant long hours. Back in the 1990s, in Ulster County, the Record had a bureau in New Paltz, Ellenville and in Kingston – with several reporters, photographers and editors staffed at each. For my part I covered school board meetings, town board meetings, planning meetings and zoning board meetings as well as checking in on local police blotters and responding to accidents, fires and crime scenes. It was exhausting, but exciting. No two days were alike.

And I wasn’t the only reporter attending those meetings or being at a crime scene or accident. Other reporters on hand were from the Poughkeepsie Journal and, of course, the Daily Freeman. And then there were reporters and editors from several weekly newspapers too. At a town board meeting or a city council meeting, it was not uncommon for three or four reporters to be in the room.

But you changed that.

Today, many of the same newspapers exist, but the coverage is far less. The Record has just one bureau in Ulster. And the Freeman has severely reduced its staff. It’s rare to see just one reporter at any municipal meeting these days. And that means the watchdog is gone, and it’s because people don’t read and buy newspapers like they once did. Of course they still read news stories, but it's online and readers, by and large, prefer not to pay for news.

People want news for free instead of a free press it seems.

Kingston is lucky, though. There are a handful of active citizens who demand greater transparency from their government. And elected and appointed officials are responding. But is it sustainable? I don’t know. I do know that it takes work and time, and a part of me wishes people would buy news again and let the media reclaim its role as watchdog.

Hotels and Malls

Shopping malls have an interesting history. Popularized by a post-World War II American Dream that included single-family homes in suburbia, the first enclosed shopping malls were modern marvels.

Real estate developers would buy up an old farm, find several “anchor tenants,” build the mall and lease the connecting stores inside to smaller specialty chains and independent retailers. The anchors tended to be larger department chain stores such as a Sears, J.C. Penney or Macy’s. But a shift has occurred over the past two decades that has weakened the revenue of department stores, which have been assaulted on a few fronts.

On one front is the growth of mass merchant discounters such as Target and Walmart who offer products are lower price points. Then there is the increase of off-price retailers such as TJX Cos. (which owns TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Home Goods), Ross Stores and Burlington Coat. These retailers gobble up unsold inventory from department stores and sell it to bargain-savvy consumers.

Another assault is from online retailers that include Amazon as well fashion brands themselves (who also sell product at discounts via outlet stores such as the ones at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets).

Department stores themselves have tried to address these changes with better service, and prices. Recently, they’ve started opening their own off-price chains. Saks and Nordstrom have expanded with Off 5th and Rack, respectively. Indeed, there are now more off-price Nordstrom stores than full-price units.

And Macy’s just launched its own off-price store called “Backstage.”

Last November, I interviewed Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s. We talked about the retailer’s third quarter results, and he said the company was “disappointed that the pace of sales did not improve in the third quarter, as we had expected. Spending by domestic customers remained tepid, especially in key apparel and accessory categories.” Spending from tourists in New York City and other, larger metro areas was also down. Results did not bode well for the upcoming holiday shopping season.

And guess what? Sales slumped, so Macy’s responded with fiscal belt tightening and store closures. I’m sure other companies will follow Macy’s lead.

But what made all of this happen? Well, the question is not “what,” but “who.” And, yes, it was you who made this happen. Consumers seeking better pricing and deals, and shifting their dollars to mass retailers and off-pricers created this environment.

Of course, bargain hunting for cheaper goods is also done out of necessity. People are cash-strapped and financially stressed. Who has the money to spend at a department store? Moreover, why would anyone pay full price when you know it will be marked down anyway? Amid these changes is a change in household income as well. As the Pew Research Center notes, the middle class is evaporating. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

There’s also another trend that is impacting department stores, which are the largest sellers of apparel and accessories: overall, people are buying fewer clothing. Instead, they’re seeking out experiences such as eating dinner out more frequently. They’re also traveling more, and with gas so cheap, who would blame them? And that may help explain why there’s been an uptick in hotel construction in our little town of Ulster. People are frugal, but they still need a place to stay while on the road.

For my part, the lesson here is that citizens are more influential than we realize. But it is our intentions that can effect real change. For example, when consumers decide they need to be smarter shoppers, the impact can change the entire business landscape.

Similarly, when people decide to stop reading newspapers and paying for news, there are changes, and consequences too. And when citizens make intentions to protect natural resources such as water while calling for greater transparency in their government, that too can change things.

In the end, it’s all up to you.

Views expressed in this piece are of the respective author and not necessarily those of KingstonCitizens.org.

 

City of Kingston Can and Should Reject the NYS DEC and Thruway Authority Request to Co-Lead SEQR Review for Pilgrim Pipeline Project. Here’s Why and How.

Map-of-SEQR-process

By Rebecca Martin
UPDATE:  Kingston did it! Both the City of Kingston Mayor and Kingston's Common Council (unanimously) voted to send letters to both the NYS DEC and Thruway Authority.   VIEW the letters. 

On December 21st, the NYS DEC and Thruway Authority both agreed that together, they would become Co-Lead of the SEQR review for the Pilgrim Pipeline Project.

Because Involved Agencies have been waiting for some resolution of the disagreement, expressed by 29 towns, cities and counties, with Thruway’s November 21, 2015 proposal that it serve as sole lead agency, some might have thought that the co-lead agreement between DEC and Thruway was final.  But it isn’t.  It is simply 2 involved agencies making a new proposal for who should serve as lead agency for the environmental review of Pilgrim Pipelines project.  SEQR regulations require that all involved agencies be given the opportunity to respond to this new proposal, which they can choose to consent to or reject.

Furthermore, the reasons cited by 29 Involved Agencies that rejected the NY Thruway Authority’s proposal to be Lead Agency in the SEQR process in the first go-round :  that Thruway stands to gain monetarily from Pilgrim Pipeline to use their right-of-way and that they are not equipped or experienced in managing an environmental review process for such an incredibly large and complicated project, remain true.

The bottom line is that the NY Thruway Authority’s bid to take on the lead agency role was overwhelmingly rejected to begin with and yet they are still in the running. Also perplexing is that on the NYS DEC’s own website, they dissuade co-lead roles in SEQR and instead advise that “a single lead agency be established with the other agency actively involved in the process but not as co-lead agency” and for good reason.  What would occur if the two leads differed in opinion somewhere down the line? Which agency would trump the other for a decision to be made?

Below are bullet points to provide more detail as to why and what the City of Kingston as an Involved agency can do now to respond to this new step in determining Lead Agency in SEQR as it pertains to the Pilgrim Pipeline proposal. The same is true for all municipalities who are in the same position that we are in.

  1. DEC wrote a letter dated December 21st recommending to the Thruway Authority that they be co-leads and Thruway responded  on the same day, agreeing to take on co-lead Agency with DEC.
  2. The NY Thruway Authority and NYS DEC are two of many Involved Agencies in the Pilgrim Pipeline project. That they both have now proposed to act as co-lead still needs to be approved by all Involved Agencies.
  3. According to applicable SEQR regulations, the lead agency coordination process requires notification (by those seeking lead agency) to all Involved agencies of the co-lead agency proposal and then a 30 calendar day period subsequent to that notification, during which Involved agencies can respond indicating their agreement or disagreement with this new proposal.  6 NYCRR Section 617.6(b)(3).
  4. Please use the following text (below) to place in COK letterhead and send to: Basil Seggos, NYS DEC’s Acting Commissioner and Robert L. Megna, NYS Thruway Authority’s Executive Director. This MUST BE ACCOMPLISHED BY JANUARY 21st.
  5. To not respond means that Kingston, as an Involved agency, agrees to the NYS DEC and NY Thruway Authority being Co-Lead in the Pilgrim Pipeline project SEQR process.

DRAFT LETTER

January xx, 2016

The Hon. Basil Seggos
Acting Commissioner, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
625 Broadway
Albany, New York 12233-1010
Email:  bseggos@gw.dec.state.ny.us

Robert L. Megna
Executive Director
NYS Thruway Authority Canal Corporation
200 Southern Boulevard
P.O. Box 189
Albany, New York 12201-0189
Email:  public.info@thruway.ny.gov

By First Class and Email

Re: SEQR Agency Coordination for the Pilgrim Pipeline Project

Dear Acting Commissioner Seggos and Mr. Megna,

The City of Kingston, as an Involved Agency in the SEQR review of the Pilgrim Pipeline Project, hereby responds to your exchange of letters, both dated December 21, 2015, notifying other involved agencies of NYS DEC's and Thruway Authority’s agreement to act as co-lead agencies in the SEQR review of the Project.  It is the City of Kingston’s understanding that your agreement between yourselves, as two of more than thirty identified involved agencies, constitutes a new lead agency proposal that SEQR requires be subject to a new lead agency coordination process.  Pursuant to applicable SEQR regulations, this process includes notification to all involved agencies of the co-lead agency proposal and a 30 calendar day period subsequent to that notification, during which involved agencies can respond indicating their agreement or disagreement with this new proposal.  6 NYCRR Section 617.6(b)(3).

We remain committed to our earlier decision dated December 2, 2015 (Kingston Common Council resolution) and November 20, 2015 (Kingston City Mayor's office) and therefore, decline to consent to the Thruway Authority's and DEC’s proposed agreement to serve as co-lead agencies for the following reasons:

1)  The Thruway Authority‘s very narrow expertise in highway use policy and regulation does not provide an adequate basis to justify the Authority’s serving as a co-lead agency in an environmental review; and

2) The DEC itself discourages co-lead agency because of the potential for disagreement, and this case does not merit an exception.   DEC has advised in the past that language in the regulations that provide for the DEC Commissioner to choose between agencies and the plain reading of the regulations themselves preclude the use of co-lead agencies.  DEC’s SEQR guidance instead recommends that “a single lead agency be established with the other agency actively involved in the process but not as co-lead agency.”

3) The Thruway Authority continues to have an apparent conflict of interest in overseeing the environmental review of a project that if approved, would result in its receipt of revenues from the Pilgrim Pipeline project  from fees charged by NYSTA for use of the right of way.

4) 27 of the 29 New York Municipalities, including the City of Kingston, have passed resolutions opposing Thruway’s involvement in overseeing the environmental review of a project that presents significant potential risks and costs to our communities that far outweigh any potential benefits, and that contradicts local and State energy goals.

Based on DEC’s own criteria which guide the Commissioner’s designation of lead agency in the event of a dispute, such as here, it is apparent that the NYS DEC is the only suitable agency to be Lead Agency in the Pilgrim Pipeline Project for the following reasons:

1. The proposed pipeline threatens important resources of statewide concern, including the Hudson River and major tributaries, such as the Rondout, Esopus, and Catskill Creeks and Wallkill River, State-regulated wetlands and other resources that the NYS DEC is responsible for protecting and is better equipped to ensure a full and adequate evaluation of environmental impacts.

2.  NYS DEC has statewide responsibility for mitigating climate change and helping to ensure that New York will meet the targets set in the 2015 New York State Energy Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 below 1990 emissions levels. The Commissioner’s Policy mandates that DEC must consider climate change in all its actions, including permitting. This proposed project to construct the first crude oil pipeline in New York must be evaluated within the context of the Energy Plan and state energy objectives, and the DEC is best positioned to ensure the comprehensive evaluation that is needed.

3. NYS DEC, as the state environmental agency, is best suited to guide the environmental review of this large, multi-jurisdictional project that has the potential to impact environmental resources in six New York counties and 29 towns, and is the agency with the power and the expertise to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated review.

4.  The pipeline will traverse and impact private lands and resources outside of the Thruway right-of-way, and it is therefore more appropriate for the NYS DEC than the Thruway Authority to play the lead role in evaluating the impacts to those lands and resources.

Finally, it is the City of Kingston’s understanding that the continuing disagreement among involved agencies regarding who should take on the responsibilities of lead agency can only be resolved by a designation of lead agency by the Commissioner of DEC pursuant to the SEQR regulations that govern that process.  6 NYCRR Section 617.6(b)(5).

Thank you very much for the opportunity to express our position with respect to the appropriate lead agency to guide this very important environmental review.