A Conversation with Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell

John Jordan | October 18, 2017

Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell

Updates on Tilly Foster, Envision Brewster and How Sewer, Water Projects Could Foster Growth

CARMEL—Prior to MaryEllen Odell taking office in November 2011, the economic development efforts in Putnam County were to put it politely outdated and were in fact close to non-existent.

Since taking office Odell has made business attraction and retention, as well as the promotion of tourism in Putnam County a staple of her administration’s core initiatives, along with stabilizing county finances and optimizing the county’s assets.

Odell, who was re-elected to her second term of office in 2014, has seen a number of her major projects bear fruit, including the successful redevelopment of the county-owned Putnam County Golf Course and the storied Tilly Foster Farm into a major attraction and educational facility.

The newly elected president has also served as Chairperson for the Mid-Hudson South Transportation Coordinating Committee (MHSTCC) and currently co-chairs the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC). Her knowledge and expertise on transit-oriented development projects has helped propel “Envision Brewster,” a revitalization initiative designed to attract millennials to live, work, and recreate in Putnam County.

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.

Real Estate In-Depth recently sat down with Putnam County Executive Odell at her offices in Carmel. Odell spent 18 years in the real estate business working as a title closer prior to taking office. In September of this year, Odell was elected president of the New York State Association of Counties. She has been a member of the NYSAC Board of Director since 2013, and has served on the executive committee as Second Vice President.

Q: Can you give us a sense of how the Putnam County economy is performing and where do you see opportunities for growth and in turn what are the impediments to that growth?

Odell: Well, let’s talk real estate first. From what I understand from my former colleagues and my friends in the real property real estate industry, there is an inventory problem (in the residential market), which says to me that it is a seller’s market, which is a good sign. The latest conversations I had in Syracuse after being sworn in as the New York State Association of Counties’ President this week was the SALT (state and local tax) implications on the $50,000 to $250,000 income bracket. So, how is that going to play out? If SALT is removed then you lose that property tax deduction, which is going to have a tremendous impact on second homeownership. So those communities that have lake homes or vacation homes, which we have a substantial amount, that could in fact impact the real estate industry. So, real estate here is holding steady.

We have the “Envision Brewster” project, which we are looking at as a tool to help retain the millennial population due to their spending power and their importance to the family unit. The Danbury, CT-Brewster (Town of Southeast) sewer connection project—the Task Force has met twice and both meetings have been very positive. (Danbury) Mayor (Mark) Boughton had a little bit of a health issue that turned out well, but we want to circle back with him.

Editor’s Note: The Danbury-Brewster sewer connection is a proposed partnership between the two cities that would involve the construction of a six-mile sewer connection along the U.S. Route 6 corridor that would expand sewer service and business development opportunities along that key commercial corridor.

We also have the Route 6 Mahopac issue right now (proposed centralized public sewer service to US Route 6, Mahopac area that would extend from the Villa Barone Hilltop Manor catering hall south to the town/county line between Putnam and Westchester). Discussions are taking place between the owners of the Heritage Hills sewer plant and the developer who has purchased the (excess) capacity. So we have taken a step back.

There is an agreement with developer Paul Camarda, who bought up 300,000 gallons of capacity from the Heritage Hills, which is in Somers. So now the Somers Town Board, the owner of the plant and the developer have to figure this out. This is for the Mahopac/Route 6 connection project. What we are looking to accomplish is the removal of three aging sewer plants and the project would also benefit Route 6 and the properties along the way that we can convert into a more efficient parcel; expand the (commercial) footprint, much like the Danbury sewer line…

Q: There has been a lot going on at the Tilly Foster Farm. Can you provide us an update? Also how important is this project for Putnam County going forward?

Odell: The partnership with BOCES has been exemplary. They graduated their first class. The restaurant (Tilly’s Table, a farm to table dining establishment) has opened and we have just tweaked our menu and are open now Friday and Saturday nights and for Sunday brunch. It is event-based. We have booked weddings, showers and last week we hosted the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council…

The whole project itself is in phases, so I look at this as phase one has been completed—the infrastructure and all those improvements, utility, water and the site plan—we have hit our mark on that. The restaurant is incredibly beautiful. It has taken everyone by surprise on actually how beautiful it is. All the credit goes to our Highways and Facilities folks who did that job—Mike McCall who GC’d the job with me. The farm is open for all our little animals. It is becoming a ‘Mommy and me” destination in the summer… We have added a few Nigerian goats. We have the mini ponies; the alpacas are sort of our welcoming hosts. So Tilly phase one I believe we definitely hit our target.

Phase two will involve rehabilitating the other dwellings there and we will invite back the Putnam Art Council and some other county partners we have that provide different services to our constituents. Those providers and not-for-profits have to give us their plan, but we are ready to talk with them and as a matter of fact I had taken the discussion to them at budget. Editor’s Note: County Executive Odell delivered her proposed $155.3-million 2018 Executive Budget on Oct. 6 at a budget address given at the Putnam County Golf Course.

Q: Can you provide an update on the proposed sewer initiative with the City of Danbury, CT to foster commercial development along Route 6?

Odell: Mayor Boughton had the health issue but bounced back immediately. We have the full support of the (Danbury) City Council. I did go and speak to the City Council, which memorialized its support (for the project)… The Task Force that has met is basically looking at the messaging, which is critically important. We have retained an engineer (John Folchetti), who is beginning the facility/feasibility study. He is looking at the capacity that has been offered in the agreement and how it would be distributed and how the actual infrastructure would be designed and then tied into that what the cost would be and the formation of the district.

Editor’s Note: Odell hopes to have the engineer’s report completed in time for her State of the County address in March 2018 and revealed that the county would likely apply for the federal government’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) discretionary grant funding for the project. The County Executive hopes that if the funding becomes available and studies and other necessary work are completed, bids could go out on the construction of the connection as early as the fall of 2018.

Q: The Putnam County Industrial Development Agency is being reorganized. How important is having a working IDA to Putnam County?

Odell: Last Monday, they approved a resolution for Ace Endico’s expansion… Teri Waivada (consultant) stayed with us through the very turbulent waters to get the IDA to function and be in compliance and get people on its Board that actually want the IDA to be a success—not a personal success for them, but a success for the county. It was really a great moment on Monday. You can tell that the people at the table were proud of their accomplishment. They did a lot of work to get that back into compliance.

Monday night that signing (with Ace Endico) opened I am not going to say a new chapter, but a whole new book on the Putnam County Industrial Development Agency and the partnership with local business. Ace Endico to us is like Amazon. We would love to have Amazon, which is looking for about a million square feet, but Ace Endico’s future and their vision (is important to Putnam County). They are working with us on Tilly Foster Farm…

I think that in fairness to anyone who is looking to invest serious dollars in a county, they want to make sure that the entities they will be dealing with, which would be the PEDC (Putnam Economic Development Corp.) and the IDA would be ready to go. And (until recently) we could not say that. We could not say that because the IDA that was here when I came here was broke and out of compliance (with New York State Comptroller) and they quite frankly had a very adversarial relationship with Putnam County government. Without the perseverance of Bill Nulk and Teri Waivada, I am not sure where we would have been. (Not having an IDA) would that have boxed us out? Absolutely. This deal we were able to put together with Ace Endico retained 325 jobs and there is job growth down the road; they have phases of future development as well. We are building a good strong economic growth base with that partnership.

Q: Have you started any negotiations with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection on a new watershed agreement?

Odell: That will never happen and according to our legal research the agreement that was signed was in perpetuity that there was never going to be a revisit—what was done was done. I am not sure why people were under the perception that there would be a re-negotiation, but when you look through the 1996 Book of Proceedings it was never going to be renegotiated.

What we can do is we negotiate one-on-one with the DEP, which we have a wonderful relationship with… Where we go from here is really one-on-one. Everything that we come to the table with we have agreed to disagree, but we have agreed to compromise and move forward on a whole host of projects—the Putnam County Golf Course, Tilly Foster is another example and Envision Brewster…

Anything that we do that is going to protect the New York City water supply they are 100% on our side and that’s a team. We are a team together. It is not one or the other. Just by example, with the Envision Brewster project to get the parking garage we have to have a land swap and are working very closely (with NYCDEP) on that. As a result, ancillary projects come up but we are always talking to each other. There is no adversarial relationship any longer. This administration and the DEP have done great things for the public benefit…

Q: Tourism is a big part of the Putnam County economy. Can the promotion of tourism in Putnam foster economic growth?

Odell: We are seeing a 6% growth in tourism, according to a New York State report… Bruce Conklin, a native of Putnam County, has come back here to lead us (as executive director of the Putnam County Visitors Bureau Inc.) He is here to promote Putnam County. As far as individual events and supporting them with projects, I think he’s doing a great job in learning who needs help and where he can be best served. I have 100% confidence that he will continue that upward trend in visitors in Putnam County. The one thing we keep striving for is the hotel component. We have some projects in abeyance. We have capital investors interested. Hopefully now with the IDA being in compliance and operating and with its terrific Board in place, perhaps the confidence level of our investors has risen enough that we can have that conversation.

We have a terrific Board at the Putnam Economic Development Corp. They are wonderful, committed and passionate people about Putnam County and its growth. Jill (Varricchio, PEDC President) is in her second year here. She has assisted us in the Consolidated Funding Application process. The Board has confidence in her abilities. It is all really starting to come together nicely.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth