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Dan Hust | Democrat

The crowd at Tuesday’s meeting inside the Tusten Town Hall in Narrowsburg was about half the size of one that gathered the prior week in this same space to hear Ilwon Kang’s presentation.

Another vision for Narrowsburg school

By Dan Hust
NARROWSBURG — December 31, 2010 — Following Ilwon Kang’s example, Dick Riseling presented his ideas for the closed Narrowsburg School on Tuesday.
Riseling’s reception at the Tusten Town Hall in Narrowsburg was far gentler than Kang’s, but this gathering featured about half the audience present for Kang the week before.
Nevertheless, Riseling – a Callicoon Center farmer and environmental consultant – had to answer pointed questions, and like Kang – a New York City developer – Riseling wasn’t always as forthcoming as the audience wanted.
Both men hope to develop the campus, which sits in the heart of town. Kang recently won the majority support of the Sullivan West school board, which plans to sell Narrowsburg to him for $700,000 unless he chooses not to buy it or if a taxpayers’ challenge now being mounted proves successful.
But unlike Kang – whose vision for the two-acre property is vaguely defined as hospitality-oriented – Riseling has a slew of ideas.
“I want to buy the building here and turn it over to the people through a corporation we’ll set up,” he told listeners.
That corporation would be non-profit but would rent space in the 81-year-old school to both non-profit and for-profit agencies.
“It is possible, when it works out, it could go for-profit,” Riseling noted of the corporation, adding that, either way, it will pay taxes (though he did acknowledge the possibility that some tenants may seek tax exemptions).
Ideas include:
• Opening the gymnasium to the community for a variety of sports activities, performances and cultural events, including existing efforts like EagleFest.
• Leasing rooms for music and art instruction.
• Creating a community kitchen available daily for food preparation and cooking classes.
• Establishing a microcreamery in the cafeteria where dairy products are produced in front of visitors.
• Instituting a year-round farmers’ market and crafts area.
• Opening a local tourism office, along with retail stores offering renewable energy products and locally-produced goods.
• Inviting educational and environmental organizations – including colleges – to open satellite centers in the school.
At full capacity, the operation could employ up to 42 people and be self-sufficient.
“I’m very confident we’ll have something that people will like,” Riseling said, adding that his supporters have calculated that the school need only be 70 percent occupied to break even.
Concerns and congrats
While some applauded Riseling’s openness and ambition, others weren’t as confident as he.
“Usually when I’m faced with something that sounds too good to be true, I’m cynical,” admitted Narrowsburg resident Kevin McDonough.
He liked Riseling’s plans but observed with irony that Riseling is strong on ideas and nebulous on funding, while Kang is strong on funding and nebulous on ideas.
Narrowsburg Chamber of Commerce President Jane Luchsinger seemed the most unsure, noting that SUNY officials had already indicated they wouldn’t be interested in siting a satellite educational facility so close to the Pennsylvania border.
“And who is ‘we’?” she asked of Riseling, referring to his consistent use of “we” when talking about his plans and the investors who will provide him with the $725,000 he’s offered for the school.
“I’m not allowed to say right now,” Riseling replied after a pause. “You will know, and when you know, you will know them.”
He added that grants may be sought to retrofit the school as needed.
But Luchsinger also wondered about the county’s plans for a community kitchen/ag-oriented effort in Kenoza Lake.
“Do you think our county can support two?” she asked.
“Nope,” replied Riseling. “I think it can support five or six. ... There is a huge market for this.”
Narrowsburg resident Bernie Creamer worried that Riseling’s development of the school might draw merchants away from the hamlet’s Main Street, which Riseling said is not his intent.
“We are not going to cannibalize [Narrowsburg] Roasters. We are not going to cannibalize the organic restaurants here,” Riseling stated. “... If they want to come into the building, it’s of their own volition.”
But Creamer also wondered if Kang might not purchase DV if he can’t purchase Narrowsburg. Since Riseling has only expressed interest in purchasing the Narrowsburg campus, DV could be left empty and an ongoing district liability.
“It is not at all clear, as you suggest, that Mr. Kang would walk away if he got just one building,” Riseling replied to Creamer. “... It is NOT a foregone conclusion that he is going to insist on having both buildings.”
Despite the concerns, the audience seemed generally in favor of Riseling’s plans. Narrowsburg resident Star Hesse, for example, thought it “sounds very good for the town and very good for the county.”
Riseling and Kang together?
Some in the room wanted Riseling to commiserate with them about Kang, but Riseling pointedly stayed away from disparaging remarks.
“This is about a petition, democracy and doing something good in the community,” he explained. “It’s not about Mr. Kang or Dick Riseling.”
“What are the chances of you and Mr. Kang working together?” queried Narrowsburg resident and businessman Tony Ritter.
Riseling said he’s met twice with Kang in the past month, including a half-hour private discussion while the SW board was mulling the two men’s offers.
Kang has previously stated he likes Riseling’s ideas, while Riseling has expressed optimism about adding renewable energy initiatives to whatever Kang proposes.
“I hope that comes to fruition,” Riseling affirmed, adding that even if Kang does secure the Narrowsburg building, he’d be willing to assist Kang in ensuring a community-oriented, sustainable effort.
Still, Riseling seems to prefer enacting his own vision over collaborating with Kang, as evidenced by the petitions now being passed around the district to hold a public vote about rebidding the sale of the schools.
SW officials have estimated around 1,000 signatures from eligible district voters would be required to force a districtwide referendum.
Riseling would only say that the effort has garnered “a couple hundred” autographs thus far, with 1,200 being his goal.
“I have petitions in 29 locations at the moment,” he explained, including at Narrowsburg Roasters, Callicoon Wine Merchant and Café Devine in Callicoon.
Those petitions – one for Narrowsburg and one for DV – were present at Tuesday’s meeting, though it appeared many in the audience had already signed them.
Riseling said that, while he’s not making a bid on DV, that sale is also being petitioned because “we want them both opened up – we think we could do better for the citizens.”
Lawsuit still possible
But even if 1,200 signatures on each petition are delivered to SW on Monday (the legally-mandated deadline), the district might attempt to reject them on technical grounds.
Riseling said he’s prepared.
“There are a lot of other things we can do,” he remarked – an Article 78 lawsuit among them. “... We believe there are many, many grounds for a legal suit.
“... It’s not what I prefer to do, but it may become so.”
While he’s friends with SW Superintendent Ken Hilton and is helping the district bring a solar electric-generating project to its Jeffersonville campus, Riseling vowed to pursue this matter as far as he can.
“We’re not going away,” he told the audience. “How could you do that?”

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