Chamber slams St. Charles plan

HUDSON–After meeting with Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Baer (R-Hillsdale) Monday morning, June 22, the Chamber of Commerce adopted motions opposing the county’s plan to lease the St. Charles Hotel for emergency housing of homeless people and calling on supervisors to withdraw the plan.

It was the first in a series of reactions, both private and official, to the county’s plan announced last week to pursue a seven-year lease for all 34 rooms at the hotel and to turn the bottom floor of the building into a satellite office for the county Department of Social Services.

Monday afternoon city officials and community members introduced a proposal to have the county use the empty former Charles Williams School on north Second Street as a temporary housing facility. That move was seen as a positive step by Mr. Baer, who said the county had wanted for some time to use the school as a temporary shelter but that the county had been rebuffed by city officials.

By Tuesday evening the situation had changed again, as the Common Council reportedly took the first step toward imposing a year-long moratorium on any new homeless shelters in the city.

This latest series of maneuvers began last week, when Mr. Baer and Department of Social Services Commissioner Paul Mossman outlined the proposal to have the county lease all of the St. Charles Hotel for seven years. The St. Charles, which faces the Seventh Street Park, is the only hotel in the city and possibly the largest in the county.

Mr. Mossman said the department would use the hotel’s 34 rooms to house people in need of emergency shelter and use the first floor of the hotel for a satellite office when the agency moves from its present headquarters in the city to the old Ockawamick School building on Route 217 in Claverack, 6 miles outside the city.

The decision to move the Department of Social Services (DSS) out of the city, where the demand for its services is concentrated, has been controversial, and the new plan for the St. Charles has introduced another element of conflict in Mr. Baer’s wide-ranging efforts to restructure key elements of county government. The St. Charles proposal has brought the county’s business community squarely into the debate.

Business leaders and city officials have questioned why the county would want to use the rooms at the St. Charles for the DSS when the county has identified tourism as one of the prospects for local economic development.

Mr. Mossman has said that leasing the hotel would be cost effective. The hotel could accommodate more than half the number  of people typically housed by the department on an emergency basis. And as Mr. Baer said this week, the county is “struggling with this problem” of finding adequate temporary housing for people in need.

The Chamber of Commerce Economic Development and Government Affairs Committee met with Mr. Baer and Commissioner Mossman Monday for an hour following which the committee met for 30 minutes and adopted two positions. In the first measure, saying that it spoke for the chamber’s 850 members, the committee said it was “admittedly against the proposal of a homeless shelter at the St. Charles Hotel,” and added that the use of the hotel for housing DSS clients “would be extremely detrimental to business in Hudson and throughout Columbia County.”

In a second motion the committee requested that the supervisors “immediately withdraw their resolution” to negotiate a seven-year lease for the St. Charles, saying the deal is “not in the best interest to the business and residents of Columbia County.”

The committee’s motions were adopted Tuesday by the full Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. The vote was unanimous with three abstentions.

“After the discussion with Baer and Mossman, we did not feel that the county acknowledged the economic implications of this move,” Chamber Chairman Michael Sullivan said in the release. Mr. Sullivan said that “already several individuals have stopped moving Hudson projects forward as a result of the recent actions the County has taken.”

The release also said that the chamber acknowledges that the county faces “issues” with homeless transitional and workforce housing. The committee said the chamber would be engaged in helping to find solutions to those problems.

But chamber President and CEO David Colby said in the release that his organization also expects to work to be sure county government considers the impact its decisions have on economic development.

The exact relationship between the county’s sudden proposal to lease the St. Charles and the proposal by the mayor to suggest the Charles Williams School building as a temporary shelter was not immediately clear. The mayor, who complained last week that the county had not consulted the city about the St. Charles plan until about an hour before it was disclosed to the press and public, could not be reached for comment before press deadline. But Mr. Baer said he saw the school plan as a positive.

Mr. Baer said Tuesday afternoon that he and other county officials have been working with a priest who is a housing expert in an effort to find better quarters for homeless families. He said the county had expressed an interest in the Williams School building but that the city had “stonewalled” those efforts, tying the use of the school to a change in the plan to move the DSS from the city.

Mr. Baer said another possibility for a shelter might be the Greenport School on Route 66, which will be vacant at the end of this school year.

Mr. Baer made these observations before the Common Council voted to proceed with a planned moratorium on shelters for the next year.
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