There’s a whirlpool of change currently swirling around the communities of the Hudson Valley and the neighboring townships of Berkshire and Litchfield counties. The events of the past two years have taken what was only recently a noticeable but measured trot from tradition to change in our area and has accelerated at a confusing pace thanks to the cultural effects of the pandemic. The mass migration of folks from the boroughs of New York City to rural towns along the Hudson River and further afield churned the once still waters of rural life with results that have thus far left the economic future of the area uncertain.
While many of the former city residents have brought revenue for small businesses and genuine community involvement, it has become harder to ignore the higher cost of living brought on an expensive housing market with each passing month. Lifelong residents and young people with an eye on the future and family have experienced growing anxiety when it comes to the prospect of laying down roots locally. To make matters more tense, the soup of culture shock, sprinkled with a bit of gentrification, seems to be brewing amidst the ever-changing nature of the Coronavirus itself and the mandates that have impacted everyday life.
Keeping a vigilant eye
Perhaps one of the few tethers that can help to tie these many seemingly loose and uncertain threads together are the local leaders elected to each small town and village. Many of the men and women who took up the mantle of a town board member or town supervisor were elected before the impacts of COVID could have been dreamed up. Still, it is these folks who are tasked with keeping a vigilant eye on the wellspring of positive change while still maintaining the traditions that have shaped community identity.
When it comes to the Town of North East, which encircles the Village of Millerton and lies in the bull’s-eye of the Tri-corner region of Dutchess, Litchfield and Berkshire counties, many residents feel as if they sit helplessly at the epicenter of the great cultural whirlpool. Perhaps then, there is no better leader to help residents navigate through the tumult than North East’s supervisor, and Yale-tested Chris Kennan. Chris is an experienced public servant, with a long history of working in the non-profit organization world. In a time when strong community bonds are essential for building a future where multiple generations will shoulder the character of rural life, Kennan and his fellow town supervisors are up for the challenging tightrope walk.
Do you have a history in local government? What inspired you to run in North East?
Much earlier in my life, I was in local government in New Jersey. I worked for Mercer County, NJ, which was centered in Trenton. A struggling, old industrial river town a lot like Poughkeepsie. It gave me a sense that local government was much closer to the people, and that you could actually see the impact of your work on people’s lives.
As far as what it was that inspired me to run for office in the Town of North East? Well, I was on the board of Townscape, which gave me a view into some of the challenges that Millerton and North East were facing. I found myself at a time in my life where the decision presented itself to either retire, or lean in and get involved in the community where I live. I chose to lean in and contribute with my experience as best as I can.
When you’re not involved in local politics, what is your path career wise? Is there a relationship between profession and local leadership?
My path, such as it is, has been entirely local. I came to this job without having grown up in Millerton. So I feel even more the importance of getting to know the community really well. All the different parts of it, especially the ones that were not immediately obvious or comfortable. Anyway, at this time, I feel there is no difference between my profession and my Town job, they’re one and the same!
What aspects of North East inspire you the most, given that it is a farming community, how much value do you place on that tradition?
I’m inspired by the physical location of the town. We live in a place that is still clean, it’s still quite natural and unspoiled, it’s magnificent. It has a farming background. And while I certainly did not grow up on a farm, I was lucky to have spent a lot of time on a dairy farm, including an entire summer when I was 17. I got to love the animals, enjoyed the milking, and got very buffed from stacking hay bales on a moving hay wagon. The agriculture we enjoy in North East has evolved, and we have almost no “traditional” agriculture left. But that’s life, no? Things change, including farming. However, what agriculture we have still involves the land, and it is the land that feeds us, and nourishes us.
What do you see for the future of local government, do you sense any broad changes when it comes to young people running for office?
I feel that local government in our area, like the Village and the Town, is so different from larger communities or areas. In local government you can know everyone who walks into Town Hall. And if you don’t, you just say hello and now you do. That is so different from the state or national government, and to some degree even from the county. I hope it always keeps that direct contact. And I’m really glad that the Town now has two Board members under 40, and hopefully we will have more. Local government is tough to get your arms around, there are so many rules and regulations, and it can move at an incredibly slow pace at times. That can be frustrating. But it also helps us make sure we’re checking all the boxes before we make any significant changes.
How do you assess your role in town government? Is there a particular issue or opportunity that you are currently focused on?
First of all, I’m glad I got to spend two years as a Town Board member before becoming supervisor. There is a lot to learn, both in terms of rules and regulations, and also in terms of what’s going on in the town, what local issues are bubbling along under the surface. You never know everything. I certainly rely on and appreciate the small crew of Town Hall employees who have helped me navigate all the formal steps and have been so supportive.
In terms of particular issues, I’ve obviously been very focused on finishing the Town’s Highway Garage project. It’s taking a long time, it is costing more than anyone had ever anticipated, but mostly due to aftereffects of COVID – materials and labor both having very significant prices increases.
At the same time, I’ve also been quite focused on our environment, and the impact of our municipal activities on climate change. What is facing our planet is so huge, so devastating, and so inexorable. It feels as if we couldn’t possibly make any difference, we’re such a small piece of a global puzzle. But we can’t just give up and avert our gaze. It’s not a responsible option. And acting together, thousands of other communities like ours, and much bigger, we can make a difference.
As a Town Supervisor, how do you balance work life with personal and political?
I balance my Town job with a lot of personal hobbies and interests. As many of my constituents know, I’m still a competitive runner in my 70’s. I enjoy the company of others as well as the competition.
I love live music (how great that Millerton has the Music Cellar, and Johnny G!). I’m looking forward to attending the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival again this summer. I’m also a news junkie, and I read a lot. Both national and international news and opinion. Sometimes that’s uplifting and inspiring, these days it can be scary and discouraging. It’s important to have outside interests, and to be aware of the larger world outside of North East.
To reach Chris Kennan, you can email him at supervisor@townofnortheastny.