Striving to Improve the County’s Fiscal Outlook and Quality of Life
John Jordan | October 2016
A Conversation with County Executive MaryEllen Odell
CARMEL—Putnam County’s continued push to foster economic development and tourism continued in 2016 with a host of ambitious initiatives, including the continued improvements at the county-owned Putnam County Golf Course, the redevelopment of the storied Tilly Foster Farm and an initiative with the City of Danbury that could bring significant development in the future to the Route 6 corridor in Brewster.
Real Estate In-Depth recently sat down with Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell at her offices in Carmel. Odell, who spent 18 years in the real estate business working as a title closer prior to her first taking office as Putnam County Executive in 2011, was re-elected to her second term of office in November 2014.
Immediately prior to her election as County Executive, Odell served as the New York State Senate’s Director of Veterans and Local Government Affairs. She first became involved in local politics in the 1990s when Carmel proposed to build a sewer plant three times too large for its service area and potentially wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. In 1995, she co-founded the Carmel Sports Association at no cost to taxpayers, and became an active member of the Hamlet of Carmel Civic Association, the Carmel Industrial Development Agency, and Putnam Economic Development Council and sat on the Executive Board for the Gold Star Mothers statue in Putnam County Veterans Memorial Park.
In January 2006 Odell was appointed to fill a vacancy on the County Legislature. She represented District 5, which included the Hamlet of Carmel and portions of the towns of Kent and Patterson. During her five-year career as a legislator, she initiated the formation of and chaired the Fiscal Vision and Accountability Commission comprised of citizen volunteers, business leaders and elected officials. There she successfully fought to reduce unnecessary government expenditures and championed such innovative programs as electronic appearance and video conferencing.
Q: What have been the cornerstones of your administration since taking office in November 2011?
Odell: When we came on board I identified two areas that we would always focus on—one would be our social responsibility and the other would be our fiscal responsibility. So as elected officials, you have public safety as your paramount responsibility. Working with our Sheriff, and certainly with our state legislators, we have all identified by just reading the newspapers everyday that we have a big issue here with the heroin-opiate epidemic. So we are working with our Sheriff’s Department and a lot of our not-for-profits and the Mental Health Association trying to identify problem areas where we can do better and where we should be doing better and finding the funding to support the not-for-profits and law enforcement in the war on addiction.
Editor’s Note: County Executive Odell singled out the fine work being done by Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, an organization focused on educating the public on the heroin and opiate addiction crisis and assisting families affected by addition, which was founded by local real estate executives Carol Christiansen and Steven Salomone and his wife Susan.
The heroin opiate epidemic hits us in both areas. Socially we don’t want our families to endure that suffering. Fiscally, it costs taxpayers an awful lot of money when someone is in the legal system, in the court system, when they are on social services, when they are dependent on society, on entitlements and legal aid, and it just snowballs.
We also took a look at some of the projects that I looked at when I was a legislator that were languishing and not realizing their full potential—the Putnam County Golf Course being number one. The challenges to that (project) were to develop a partnership with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to leverage East of Hudson funds in order to establish a good infrastructure down there that complimented the facility and the grounds and our responsibilities to clean water. So clearly the parking lot and all the drainage work down there helped (fulfill) our responsibilities to clean water, but also helped the facility.
Q: What was the cost of the Putnam County Golf Course redevelopment project?
Odell: We leveraged about $8 million worth of grants, East of Hudson funds and we kicked in about $800,000. That project is done and flourishing. It exceeded our expectations. I can say that this season all of the improvements to the course and all the improvements to the facility really hit their maximum number. So now we are looking at areas where we can exceed that—we put what they call a ‘Break House’ outside where we have added two bathrooms for men and ladies out there on the course. It (The Break House) also provides refreshments and that all is generating revenue. The cart paths that we kind of had to work out with through the Watershed Agreement have been completed. Overall, the course play is excellent. I am a golfer and so I talk to people all the time and residents are just so proud of the course and so happy they have it here…
Q: Is Putnam County making a profit at the golf course?
Odell: The food and beverage side is doing very well, exceeding expectations. The rounds of golf, when you match it to what is happening in the nation, we are performing above that. It is affordable golf, it is good play, and as they say in golfer language, ‘The greens are rolling well.’
Q: What are Putnam County’s chief attributes and how have you tried to harness those attributes to benefit the Putnam County economy?
Odell: I think you always look at the people in Putnam County and you look at this resource of talent that we possess. We have the first responders, we have the active, we have the retired…we have our military, retired and active, and we look to them for guidance and support. Certainly one thing Putnam County is very proud of it is our patriotism…
Then you look at our landscape, the lakes, the natural beauty, the resources that are here to tap into and all of the things we have identified in tourism that we promote. The golf course has certainly helped with that. We also have the Buddhist Monastery, we have the bike trails, and we have the hiking over in Cold Spring. Talking about Cold Spring, you have all the antique shopping and the restaurants. In Mahopac, Route 6 is becoming a ‘wine and dine corridor’ right now. There are some terrific restaurants in that couple of mile strip. We also have Boscobel in Cold Spring (where the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival performs during the summer months).
Cold Spring and Garrison have sort of been the moniker for tourism (in Putnam County). They sustain themselves. We have been trying to develop (tourism-related venues) on this part of the county and we have certainly identified Tilly Foster Farm as the other gateway to the county.
Q: Can you provide us an update on the redevelopment of the Tilly Foster Farm that the county has undertaken?
Odell: The most exciting recent news about Tilly was the ribbon cutting with the partnership with BOCES (see story on page 14). So we looked at the golf course, we had a plan, we had a vision, we developed a business model, we implemented and executed it and checked it off the list. Now we have turned to Tilly Foster. What is Tilly’s value outside of the 199 beautiful acres? It clearly speaks to our agricultural and historic integrity. It is a gateway property being right on I-84. Metro North is right there and so are our bus lines. What have the people of Putnam County been looking for? Educational opportunities always come up. We have talked to higher education institutions in the past about opening up something here in Putnam County. Our size, which in so many ways helps us, in this instance hasn’t helped us bring in a higher educational facility. So, (we turned to) BOCES.
Everyone is familiar with BOCES, everyone is familiar with what they have to offer. It is an opportunity for those individuals who choose not to further their education after high school or it gives someone an opportunity who is embarking on an encore career or a choice in a career change to look at some of the trades. BOCES curriculum has changed from back in my day in the 1970s. So the Culinary Arts program I thought was a perfect match for us. Because of our agricultural integrity and because we still have 11,000 acres of true farming acreage here in Putnam County, I thought it was a really great integration to bring that property to the people in such a way that it offered an educational experience, brought the farm-to-table experience and was also a wonderful gateway tourist destination…
This program is just an entrée to many other programs we will be offering (at Tilly Foster Farm): bioscience programs, equine programs and we are also hoping to implement early intervention pre-K programs… This property we look at as providing endless opportunities for our agricultural integrity and history but as a good tourist destination.
Editor’s Note: Odell also discussed those new programs to be undertaken with various partners. For example, the county will be working with Cornell Cooperative Extension to convert some the acreage to organic farming. “Tilly’s Table,” a farm-to-table themed restaurant, is scheduled to open in April 2017. The county plans to solicit Request for Proposals for the operator of the restaurant soon.
Q: Another initiative your administration has taken on is the addition of senior services at the former Butterfield Hospital development in Cold Spring. What is the status of that project?
Odell: The Butterfield project is another example of fiscal and social responsibility. The senior population makes up 25% of the Putnam County population of a little under 100,000. The senior population is trending higher in the western part of the county. For years, as a long as I have been in county government, the folks in the western part of the county have been terribly underserved for services—not just for senior services, but across the board. They have to drive over here for Motor Vehicle; they have to drive over here for health screenings; for any county service they have to come over here. It is a 16-mile, one-way trip on Route 301. So, considering what their tax base is, Butterfield has always been an opportunity to offer them their tax dollars back.
Butterfield was an opportunity with a developer (Unicorn Contracting) who is building a mixed-use residential-commercial project on this campus. And the Town of Philipstown has been asking those of us in the county to help them provide a community and services center. We thought it was a perfect public-private partnership with the developer, the county and the town to give the seniors a site to enjoy, relax and have good nutrition and social programs. We are signing a lease for 6,000 square feet there.
Editor’s Note: Putnam County residents and media moguls Roger and Elizabeth Ailes had donated $500,000 for the senior center project, but after the project and issues surrounding their contribution “became a political football game,” the Ailes withdrew their donation. Odell said that the county is moving forward with the lease, but had to scale back some of the planned upscale amenities at the center, including a teaching kitchen. The county is planning to bond the project at somewhere around $1.3 million.
Q: What is the latest on the sewer initiative with the City of Danbury and what is this project’s potential impact on the Route 6 corridor?
Editor’s Note: Odell related that the county was not selected as one of the winners of a federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) federal grant in the latest round of funding awards, but said that the county plans to re-apply in subsequent rounds to secure funding for the six-mile sewer (approximately $6 million) project. The county has also applied for state Consolidated Funding Application funding for the Putnam Valley-Cortlandt sewer water project that would bring sewer and water to the central business district in the Town of Putnam Valley.
Odell: Now that we got the information that we were not awarded any funding under the TIGER grant, we are now looking at other opportunities for funding (for the Danbury-Route 6 sewer project). We will be reaching out to property owners on the corridor that would benefit (from the project), looking at some capital investors to see if they would be interested; looking at the private-public partnership concept, which has worked for us in the past. I think this project would be ripe for that P3. Clearly my role as the co-chair for NYMTC (New York Metropolitan Transportation Council) has given me some opportunities to go down some avenues and meet some folks at the federal level. Also working with the New York State Association of Counties, I am always brought ideas from my colleagues throughout New York State who have looked at opportunities like this and (shared) how they handled these situations of getting the project funded, creating the local municipality buy-in and then marketing the project.