(Sherburne, NY – Oct. 2012) I recently read an article by Michael Hudson, who is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street financial analyst, and Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. The article was titled “Wall St.’s Next Profit Scheme — Buying Up Every Piece of Your Home Town,” and Hudson describes, with corroborating analysis, “Wall Street’s war against the 99 percent” the pace of which is “quickening in preparation for the kill.”
A version of this is happening here in Central New York. A week ago, a friend called to tell me there was a rumor circulating that the Sherburne Inn building in the heart of Sherburne was to be sold to Stewart’s and replaced with a convenience store and gas station. We convened a meeting last Sunday evening with Jim Web, the current owner of the property (as well as the adjacent property that used to be the Big M supermarket), Mayor Bill Acee, and several other community leaders.
Webb has been trying to sell the property for several years, and, according to him, Stewart’s is the first viable offer he’s had. He feels compelled, rightfully, to take advantage of it. But there are many of us in Sherburne who see the destruction of an historic building as the beginning of the end.
After two and half hours of discussion and numbers crunching, none of us was hopeful, but nevertheless Webb said if we came up with a $150,000 deposit, he’d give us until the end of the year to come up with the balance.
Don’t get me wrong: Stewart’s is not a Wall Street company. As far as chains go, it’s not even a “bad” company. It is a privately held, one third employee-owned and two thirds family-owned business based in Saratoga Springs with 328 convenience shops in over 30 counties in Upstate New York and Vermont. It was founded in 1945 when the Dake family purchased a dairy and ice cream shop from Donald Stewart of Ballston Spa.
They employ approximately 4,000 people in their shops, dairy, ice cream plant, distribution center, and offices. They do over $1 billion in annual sales, with over $50 million in profits, and contributed nearly $15 million to their employee profit sharing plan last year. Their policy is to give back to the communities where they have shops by donating a portion of annual profits to charity ($2.25 million in 2012). They own the real estate where their shops are located and have no debt.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is this: should this sale go through, the four-corners downtown district of Sherburne will be occupied by a convenience store, a gas station, and a vacant building. And the Inn, which is on the National Historic Register as part of the Sherburne Historic District, will disappear under the wrecking ball.
At the meeting on Sunday, Mayor Acee gave us the history of the Village’s endeavors to save the Inn, everything from seeking state and federal grant money to marketing it to hotel and restaurant conglomerates in the hopes that it could be restored to its former glory. All efforts failed. And so the building has continued to deteriorate, and is currently little more than an eyesore in the middle of the Village.
It is a sad state of affairs when gas, beer, and potato chips trump the preservation of history and the memories that go along with that history. And yet that is precisely the state we have come to, especially in rural communities like ours, where taxes are high, jobs are few, and anyone with money is looking for a sure thing, unwilling to take a chance that if we give people something beautiful and meaningful they just might value it enough to make it successful.
There is significant support to try to save the inn. Many local people have indicated a willingness to not only contribute funds, but to do the actual carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and other tasks that renovation would require – all for free.
Sherburne is only one of many CNY villages facing similar challenges. If this is the proverbial writing on the wall, we can all look forward to a countryside littered with drive-through service businesses, bereft of any evidence of history or sense of place.
This flies in the face of every reason why many of us moved back here in the first place. And it feels like betrayal.
Chris Hoffman lives in the village of Sherburne in her 150+ year-old house where she caters to the demands of her four cats, attempts to grow heirloom tomatoes and herbs and reads voraciously. She passionately pursues various avenues with like-minded friends to preserve and protect a sustainable rural lifestyle for everyone in Central New York.