March Gallagher, Deputy Director of Ulster County Economic Development, speaks at the New Paltz Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

To make sure they survive in an uncertain economy, Main Street businesses in New Paltz should both seek to brand themselves as one united entity and think deeply about who their customers are and what motivates them, Ulster County Planning Board Director Dennis Doyle said. Doyle urged the crowd to take a lesson from Phoenicia, which turned the tragedy and destruction of tropical storms Irene and Lee into a drive that helped unify businesses on Main Street. Part of their winning strategy has been pooling resources to advertise collectively as a downtown — using Phoenicia as a brand name. In a time where Internet sales on Amazon and other shopping sites offer extreme convenience and unmatchable selection, local shops have to sell experience more than goods.

“You may not be able to compete on price, but you can compete on place,” the planning director told his audience. Ulster County leads both Dutchess and Orange counties as tourist destinations, so it makes sense for Main Streets — like New Paltz’s — to go after that market.

He also urged local businessmen and shop owners to think about what kind of people their customers actually are. Who are the people who shop in New Paltz on the weekend? What brings them to town, what psychology motivates them and what do they want?

According to Doyle, New Paltz also has a large gap to fill in terms of its hotel offerings — especially given that the town hosts a number of festivals and neighbors many other towns — like Rosendale’s Pickle Festival and Gardiner’s Cupcake Festival — that host special events.

These are “the kind of activities where people are looking to stay overnight,” he added.

Doyle’s pep talk came as part of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Feb. 15 luncheon. He was joined by March Gallagher, the deputy director of economic development for the county.

Gallagher too noted that New Paltz could learn some lessons from Phoenicia. Around the time of the flood, the tiny village west of Woodstock partnered with Ulster County to develop a Main Street marketing strategy.

“We were doing this main street work and they had just been decimated,” she explained. Before the flood, businesses in town couldn’t seem to agree with how to proceed with marketing. After the flood, Gallagher said she noticed a marked change. The tragedy seemed to help them pull together to create an all-for-one marketing approach.

“I don’t know if it was the flood, but they really came together,” she said. “I think it really changed the dialogue there.”

New Paltz might not have the same type of cataclysmic prompt, but already the town and village have a strong identity associated with Main Street, the college and the mountain ridge.

Doyle emphasized that people know the New Paltz brand regionally, and that businesspeople in town would do well to build on that existing good will. “You have some iconic stores. You have some iconic images,” he said.

Doyle and Gallagher also spoke to the need for towns and villages to streamline their planning board processes to make it easier on businesses and allow locals to say yes to the right projects. Laws often create unintended consequences, and zoning laws can hold business back.

“We’ve suggested, especially with regard to the Village of New Paltz, that they allow stores to be reoccupied,” he said.

Countywide, the work now is to perfect a system of “one-stop shopping” for developers. Gallagher noted that Ulster County already does some coordinated planning sessions for big projects, but that they’re still working to smooth kinks out of the process and save time for entrepreneurs.

Locally, New Paltzians have at least two major problems to address if they’d like business to thrive — the two-government structure and the Plesser property by the Thruway, according to the planning director.

People might remember the Plesser property better as the location of the now-defunct Crossroads at New Paltz. The property has been an issue for a long time, and maybe now, with no development plan on the table, is a good time to figure out what should go there. “I would suggest that the community engage and find some solution to the Plesser issue,” he added.

New Paltz Town Planning Board member Jonathan Wright attended the chamber luncheon to hear Doyle’s speech. He agreed that large projects in New Paltz, like Crossroads, tend to cause outcries. But from his perspective he saw a bigger concern — the disconnect between village zoning and town zoning.

“We have an issue, our zoning conflicts,” Wright said.

Doyle agreed with that assessment, saying that New Paltzians need to come to a conclusion about the best way to smooth over zoning conflicts between the town municipal governments.

The county planning director called on businesses to help lead the discussion with the town and village government about how best to marry the conflicting zoning. ++