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Neighbors don’t applaud warehouse theater plan

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This empty warehouse at 10 Canal Street belongs to the Village of Philmont, which is leasing it for a theater and arts center. A group of neighbors opposes the plan. Photo by David Lee

PHILMONT–A lot of water has rushed over George P. Philip’s dam in Philmont since it was built in 1845. The Agawamuck Creek powered the textile mills for which Philmont was known in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Philmont was sometimes called Factory Hill. But beginning in 1953 the mills went silent, the Philmont high school closed when the district was centralized in 1952, the last trains went through in 1976. Philmont’s population declined and for a time Philmont has been viewed askance by more upscale parts of the county.

One of the cavernous old mill buildings that remains is, for some, a source of optimism fed by visions of a revitalized village. Others say that plans to make the building into a theater and arts center don’t comply with village zoning and amount to “an accident waiting to happen.”

A group called Philmont Beautification, Inc., which had been contracted by the Village Board to pursue a grant from the State of New York, announced December 19 that the state had accepted the village proposal for a Brownfield Opportunities Area grant. The funds are intended to move village improvement plans to the planning implementation phase on the warehouse project.

In a press release, Sally Baker, director of Philmont Beautification, Inc. (PBI) cited the group’s “partnership with the Village of Philmont,” which she said made it possible for PBI, “Working Groups and the village co-chairs to build an integrated proposal with an ambitious and bold $407,419 project for a little village!”

For Ms. Baker, the grant demonstrates the value of grass-roots planning. But last October, before the grant was announced, a group of residents called the High Falls Property Owners Association (HFPOA) filed a civil suit against the village. The suit centers on the decision by the Village Board to award a lease to an arts group known as Free Columbia. The property owners group alleges the village illegally negotiated a lease agreement with Free Columbia to create a theater, a use that is “flatly prohibited” under the current zoning law.

The suit also asserts that the Philmont Board of Trustees accepted the Free Columbia proposal “without competition, thus violating the Board’s fiduciary obligations.”

There was only one other proposal for the project.

The nine plaintiffs in the case include Chris Reed, Jean Giblette and Tom Paino, who are all members of the village Brownfield grant steering committee. Speaking on behalf of the property owners group, Mr. Reed said, “It’s important to stress that we are not opposed to the performing arts. Free Columbia is a nice idea but this is the wrong place.”

He acknowledged that members of the HFPOA own property that abuts the Canal Street parking lot and warehouse, but said the reason for their opposition is that the site is on the edge of a steep, rocky gorge through which the Agawamuck flows.

The plan submitted to the state calls for this area of the brownfield site to be used for light industry or craftspeople, not as a destination for crowds attending a performance. “Some of this land is in private hands; the landowners are terrified of a law suit if somebody would fall,” Mr. Reed said.

He has an alternative use for the old mill warehouse at 10 Canal Street. He owns a separate mill building at 11 Canal Street and rents space to three businesses doing carpentry and furniture restoration. One of those tenants, David Marcrander, submitted a competing proposal for using the space as a woodworking shop and a Philmont Craft Guild; “a place for young people in Philmont to learn skill in trades that would lead to better job prospects either at the Mill itself or in the job market at large,” according to Mr. Reed.

The proposed lease would be $1,680-$2,520 per month, with a start date dependent on the investment required to make the space workable.

Free Columbia has operated in Philmont since 2009, most recently finding residence in the old Dollar Store on Main Street. For its first 10 years, Free Columbia was part of the Hawthorne Valley Association. Last year it formed a board and filed incorporation papers.

Free Columbia’s proposal would create the Free Columbia Cultural Center in the building at 10 Canal Street as the home of the High Falls Theater and High Falls Theater Ensemble, and the M.C. Richards Program, named for Mary Caroline Richards, a 20th century poet and potter. It would be a one-year, full-time educational program in many disciplines. The cultural center would also be used for classrooms workshops and events.

Free Columbia’s lease is $1 per year for the first seven years and $3,600 for the last seven years for “as is” use of 10 Canal St. Supporting papers submitted by Free Columbia estimate the value of improvements to the village’s facility would be $500,000.

Nathaniel Williams and Laura Summer are co-founders of Free Columbia. Mr. Williams said, “This is not just about rent or investment, it is about the community benefits of arts and education.”

“There needs to be a high degree of clarity around this, and in that sense, the law suit is a kind of a blessing, forcing the issue,” he said.

Mr. Williams said he supports Mr. Marcrander’s proposal. “If the suit is decided in our favor, the first thing we will do is enter into mediation,” he said.

Philmont Village Trustee Larry Ostrander said, “Our opinion is that we all stand by our agreement. Everything was legal and there was no favoritism,” adding, “This wasn’t done on a whim–a lot of thought and work went into the process.”

Tom Paino is a member of both the Brownfield Opportunity Grant Steering Committee and a member of the HFPOA. Decades ago he bought a second home in Philmont. Since then he has owned a few different properties in the village. He acknowledges that Philmont was for a time down-in-the-heels.

“Philmont is at a crossroads, now,” he said, and “things are changing rapidly.”

He spoke bluntly about what led him to join the suit: “The problem is that local government is a good-old-boy network. They are not paying attention to the rules.”

Mr. Paino said that zoning prohibits the use of the Canal Street Warehouse as a theater. Nor was it part of the village Comprehensive Plan.

“We spent hours and hours working on the plan; this was to be a maker space to respect the historic quality of the area.” He said he offered to help write the request for proposals for the site but village officials refused.

He also spoke about other potential violations and then focused his concern on a different impact the project might have: gentrification.

He would like to see Free Columbia in Philmont, said Mr. Paino, “This is just the wrong location. Having this become a not-for-profit area–it could be Mother Theresa–it won’t have as big a ripple effect as a for-profit business.”

PBI Director Baker sees the problem differently, “If you have a plan, it works as a protection against gentrification. When people owning businesses in town, live in that town, they make improvements with a view to reusing not to flipping.”

She listed some of the successes of PBI, including the old Stewart’s building and lot, Local 111 and the Main Street Pub. Her organization has been involved in the revitalization of 22 local buildings.

“Free Columbia has worked hard for seven years; they are a known quantity for the work they do—they have huge community support,” Ms. Baker said. “That this little community government can recognize the value of Free Columbia is so wonderful. We’re lucky to have them and it is outrageous that there is this opposition.”

The case is now before Judge Richard Koweek in state Supreme Court with a decision expected soon.

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