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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

Helderberg Hilltowns Association to organize

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — The Helderberg Hilltowns Association will hold its first-ever meeting on April 17 to discuss ways to bolster the local economy, possibly through low-impact, agricultural and recreational tourism.

“We’re hoping that the towns will step with both feet into this, and help improve the economic vitality of their own towns, and all of the Hilltowns together,” said Daniel Driscoll, a 30-year Knox Planning Board member who has been helping to form the group.

Harold Miller, a Berne native who now lives in Mexico, began building a network late last year of individuals interested in assembling an association of Hilltown farmers and business owners who would act as a virtual chamber of commerce for the Helderbergs, the goal being to increase agricultural tourism to the area as an economic stimulus.

At that time, Miller listed three steps in that direction: organizing a Hilltowns farmers market that would rotate weekly among Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville; creating a brochure that would list farms and activities in the Helderbergs; and suggesting tour routes to places of interest in the Hilltowns.

[For further coverage of this low-impact tourism initiative, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, and look under archives for Dec. 24, 2009.]

“The organizational meeting is when we’ll try to assemble the association,” said Driscoll of the April 17 gathering, which is open to the public. “We will also set a second meeting for the association, and at that meeting, we’ll elect officers.”

The steering committee — a group of nine Hilltowners who have been organizing the Helderberg Hilltowns Association — sent letters to each of the four Hilltown supervisors, inviting them to the April 17 meeting. Supervisors George Gebe of Berne and Richard Rapp of Westerlo told The Enterprise this week that they will likely not attend; Rapp said he might send a representative.

“I’ll probably go myself,” said Knox Supervisor Michael Hammond. “All their objectives seem to be very good ones.”

Rensselaerville Supervisor Marie Dermody could not be reached for comment.

In a March report, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli encouraged this kind of economic sustainability. Open spaces, DiNapoli said, “provide a more direct economic benefit through tourism, agriculture, and the forestry industry. All these benefits should be a factor in land-use decisions.”

The report goes on, “Agriculture is among New York’s largest and most vital industries, encompassing 25 percent of the state’s land, and generating more than $4.5 billion for the state’s economy each year. In 2007, the income generated directly by farms, combined with income generated by agricultural-support industries and by industries that process agricultural products, totaled $31.2 billion.”

Driscoll, one of the nine on the steering committee, said that at the organizational meeting, the group will pull several discussion points from the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, which he co-edited with Lindsay Childs, a longtime planning leader in Guilderland.

The guide, published in 2002, was created to encourage appropriate land use and development in the Helderbergs.

“In the later 19th century, with the onset of the Victorian era and its increased emphasis on recreational pursuits, the escarpment region became attractive for reasons beyond farming, logging, and scientific study,” the planning guide reads. “It became a major destination for all manner of hikers, daytrippers, picnickers, and general outdoor enthusiasts.”

Many of these people, the guide says, came from urban areas, like Albany, arriving by train at Meadowdale Station below the Helderbergs. These tourists would then hike their way up Indian Ladder Road to the top of the escarpment.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Helderbergs became a popular summer-vacation spot. Wealthier travelers built summer homes there, taking in the view, and many hotels, inns, and camps at Thompsons and Warners lakes housed those less wealthy.

Today, that culture has mostly faded away, though John Boyd Thacher Park, established in 1914, is visited by thousands annually. The governor’s plan to close Thacher and many other state parks to reduce the budget gap has caused thousands to rally.

Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, an Albany County legislator who represents the Hilltowns and owns a grass-fed beef farm in Knox, will be the keynote speaker at the organizational meeting.

“Sandy Gordon’s been involved in agriculture and community encouragement in the economic area of things,” Driscoll said, “and we think he’s also interested in the other aspects of what the Helderberg Hilltowns Association is about.”

The April 17 organizational meeting will take place at 1:30 p.m., at the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve on Pond Hill Road in Rensselaerville.

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