Business looks up for the county

THE SMELL OF WARM MOLASSES used to fill the air along Hudson Avenue in Chatham. It came from the row of silos on the railroad siding, where feed was mixed and stored. Especially in winter, the sweet aroma tickled your senses, softening the bite of frigid air.

That scent is gone, but there’s another, equally welcome one on the horizon: baking bread. The owner of Our Daily Bread is building a new bakery just down the road from the old silos. It occupies nearly 4,000 square feet and has a wing that connects to a house next door, where he’s putting a café.

Technically speaking, the bakery and café qualify as a small business, but they look pretty big in a little village like Chatham. This entrepreneurial project is worth noting because of what it means for the community — jobs, tax revenue, spin-off commerce as well as another place to eat — and for what it says about the local economy.

Glance around the corner from the bakery. Stewart’s just opened a new shop and gas station in direct competition with Charron’s and the Chatham Getty station, both of which would appear to have better locations. But Stewart’s didn’t grow into a profitable regional chain by making rash judgments about where to build its stores. With relentless efficiency it demolished an old factory and practically inflated its brand new shop. The company undoubtedly expects to make money there, and it hasn’t wasted a moment pursuing that goal.

About half a mile away, Price Chopper is moving ahead with its plans to build a new, larger supermarket to replace its Chatham store. Last month the Hannaford supermarket chain announced it would build a supermarket in New Lebanon. Hannaford, which already has a big market in Valatie, now says it plans to build another market at Bell’s Pond, where Routes 9 and 82 converge.

Add to all this the growing inventory of big box stores at the Greenport Commons plaza, where, in rapid succession, Walmart, Lowe’s and T.J. Maxx have opened, and a Kohl’s department store will soon arrive. And Alderwoman Ellen Thurston has counted over 30 new businesses that have opened in the last year on or near Warren Street in Hudson, a community that had expected to see a further decline in retail trade as the box stores lured away its customers. Good luck if you want a parking spot on Warren Street these days.

The first 2010 Census figures released this week addressed national and state headcounts. They don’t yet provide the data that would shed light on the trends we see here, and the Census Bureau’s estimates don’t help much either. For instance, a growth in population might explain what seems like a sudden spike of interest in Columbia County. But 10 years ago 63,094 people lived in this county; nine years later, the population estimate was only 61, 618. The county has lost about 2% of its population.

Market researchers use all sorts of tools to predict where we will live and how we will spend our money, and the companies they work for keep most of this data a secret. But here’s a theory about what they know: Look at a map of the Northeast United states and imagine all the places within a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City; Columbia County stands out as one of a handful of places where land is still relatively affordable and taxes comparatively low (as opposed to Westchester County, Long Island or Connecticut).

Then consider the places that are within an hour’s commute from Albany and its northern suburbs, where a huge new computer chip manufacturing plant will open in 2012. Once again, Columbia County pops up.

Maybe all the recent commercial development activity locally is just a coincidence or it reveals a desperate effort by retailers to chase after every last customer in a shrinking market. Maybe market researchers haven’t painted a development bulls-eye on the county. But what if we are seen as a target for growth? We’d better evaluate whether we’re prepared to manage that growth responsibly, or sooner than we think, very few of us will be able to afford to live here anymore.

Having said that, it’s reassuring to know businesses big and small see opportunity here even as the nation tries to limp out of recession. Maybe what I’ve been missing is not so much the scent of molasses but the sight of more people working and the smell of their money.

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