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Philmont makes plans to plan for future

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Major ‘brownfield’ grant from state jumpstarts process

PHILMONT—This village has been gradually moving into the planning phase for its Summit Reservoir Area Revitalization Plan, working closely with citizens groups like Philmont Beautification, Inc. and with consultant Elan Planning. The Summit Reservoir Plan is one component of a larger Community Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Village Board in 2003.

In 2010 the village held its first public hearing on the possibility of applying for a Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) grant and in 2012 was awarded $225,000. Sally Baker, executive director of Philmont Beautification, Inc., says the village is matching $25,000 of this grant with 1,000 hours of volunteer time donated by residents who have taken an interest in the project.

The goal of this planning phase is to have as many residents as possible contribute ideas and opinions for how to use the grant. Ms. Baker expects that this planning phase will take about 14 months and will include “stakeholder meetings and community visioning sessions.”

Village Trustee Larry Ostrander, who is also a member of the Summit Reservoir Area Revitalization Executive Steering Committee, asked that “people be patient” while the plan is developed.

According to Laz Benitez at the state Department of State, the agency responsible for awarding the grant, BOA grants are awarded for many different types of projects. “A brownfield is a property that has real or perceived contamination which complicates redevelopment,” Mr. Benitez wrote in an email. However, he emphasized that these “environmental uncertainties” are only one of several considerations in awarding the grants, and that the grants are really “designed to revitalize areas with high commercial vacancy, underutilization of properties and economic distress.”

In the case of Philmont, the goal is to repurpose and reclaim areas associated with the village’s industrial history, including the Summit Reservoir waterfront and abandoned buildings, such as the Summit Mill, which is still in private ownership. Christopher Reed, another member of the steering committee, described the manmade reservoir as a part of that “industrial history.”

Philmont once had 17 mills and was a center of textile production. Mr. Reed says the village’s industrial “heyday… goes back to the 1920s and early ’30s.” The mills were mostly gone by the 1950s, part of a larger trend of that kind of industry moving from the Northeast to the South. But “the nail in the coffin” for Philmont as an industrial town “was when there was this humongous mill fire [at the location of the current Cumberland Farms gas station] that could have destroyed the village.”

The fire occurred during a blizzard in January 1977. The brick mill building, built in the 1800s, had spent three months as a rubber factory—an earlier attempt to repurpose local structures left empty when the mills shut down. In an Associated Press article covering the event, then-Mayor Clinton Mossman said the village “had pinned all our hopes” on the rubber factory.

Mr. Reed cited the rehabilitation of Richardson Hall in the early 2000s for subsidized housing as a turning point in the recovery efforts by the village.

Silt buildup in the Summit Reservoir is also being studied. Mr. Ostrander said that the reservoir area has “been deteriorating over the course of the last 30 or 40 years,” though officials don’t know the source of silt. “When I was a kid you could swim in about eight feet of water. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find four or five feet of water,” he said. He doesn’t believe that people use the reservoir for swimming or ice-skating anymore.

Mr. Ostrander suggested that proposals might include “a rail trail, walking trails” and accommodations for “swimming, hiking and biking,” but that the main thrust of the plan was to “just make Philmont part of what’s happening in Columbia County.” Mr. Reed said that some proposals might make the town “even more attractive to people… who live here because of its walkability,” possibly “some kind of public transportation.” But he anticipates that the best ideas have yet to be proposed. “I really want to be surprised by what comes out of this,” he said. “This is really an exploration.”

The village will solicit ideas from residents concurrently with studies of the area that falls within the scope of the plan. These studies will include an engineering evaluation of the Summit Dam and the Summit Mill; a bathymetric map of the Reservoir (essentially an underwater topographical map); water testing; and a market analysis of the community, which will provide a demographic profile of Philmont.

Ms. Baker says that there are plans afoot for a community day and an all-day open house in February. She also discussed plans for “house parties” of six to eight people at which people who might not be comfortable with voicing opinions at large public meetings can weigh in on the plans.

She hopes these meetings will alleviate fears of gentrification or displacement, especially among seniors and other long-term residents—fears that Ms. Baker believes are unfounded.

Mr. Ostrander said the plan should be inclusive. Though he acknowledged no plan can accommodate what everybody wants, but he said ideas from residents will help the village arrive at the “best plan.”

Mr. Reed agrees that that the goal is “as wide a public participation as possible.” He hopes the meetings will help keep “the village informed about the value of what it possesses,” which will make the community less “vulnerable” to outside developers, who may not have a vested interest in “the spirit that really formed Philmont in the first place.”

Informational flyers will go out to homeowners with their water bills about once a quarter. “Our goal is to reach every member of the community,” said Ms. Baker. “The more people that turn up and tune in, the better the plan will be.”

The next stakeholder meeting will take place on January 13.

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