Unlike any time in our recent memory, the crisis that has befallen populations around the world has forced large scale governmental institutions to lay bare the true value of public health and safety. Emergencies, natural disasters, and traumatic events throughout history have often brought out the best and worst in society and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the heart of the human spirit has persevered in places where community outreach is part of the very fabric of society. Local leaders and community groups from towns as diverse as the country itself have gone to work establishing new-age communication platforms as well as emergency care initiatives and food distribution hubs. Some of the most immediate and innovative responses have come from the nation’s small town mayors.
In Millerton, NY, Mayor Debbie Middlebrook has turned her strong familial bonds and volunteer spirit into a collaborative effort to lead the historic village through the hardest of times and re-establish neighborly connections that reflect the true nature of the Hudson River Valley.
Do you have roots in the area? How did you find your way into local government and what were your expectations?
Yes, I actually have deep roots in the area. I was born here in Millerton and spent most of my youth and young adulthood here. For many years, my grandmother owned a clothing store in the building now occupied by Oblong Books & Music. After moving away in the 1980s, my husband and I decided to return to the area in 2004. Being away and later returning gave me not only a fresh perspective but a new appreciation and fondness for this area – and Millerton in particular.
To be completely honest, I found my way into local government purely by chance. It wasn’t something I necessarily ever thought about. I remember driving through the village one day and noticed several people planting flowers and I thought, I would like to do that! I joined Townscape, started volunteering and, as they say, one thing led to another. After a while, I was encouraged to join the Village Planning Board, which then led to a seat on the Village Board of Trustees, and ultimately to my role as Mayor. It just seemed to be a natural progression. I don’t know that I had any expectation other than thinking, what can I do to help.
How have you seen the landscape of Millerton transform during your time as Mayor?
Millerton seems to be ever changing and ever growing. I feel as though Millerton is currently in yet another state of change. It is disappointing we do not have a local grocery, but I remain optimistic a business will come into the area to fill that void. Millerton has been able to maintain its small-town charm, drawing visitors looking for a brief getaway or a permanent weekend retreat. While farming continues in the area, it is also a tourist destination. The expansion of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is only going to draw more visitors to our community. I feel there is a new sense of collaboration within the community. New residents are anxious to work with longtime residents to improve the area and bring a renewed sense of revitalization.
You have been part of several initiatives during your term as Mayor including the expansion of both the village sidewalks as well as the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. How do projects like these come about and how have you seen them impact the village?
The expansion of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail was well underway before my tenure as Mayor. It just happens to be occurring during my term and I am very happy to see this project completed.
Millerton is a walking community and for several years the Board of Trustees for the Village has made it their priority to work on improving our sidewalks. The current project, that will begin later this year, to replace the sidewalk on the south side of Main Street [the side that Oblong, Terni’s, and Irving Farm are located] is being funded in part by a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). The balance of the project will be funded by village taxpayers. Improving sidewalks benefits both residents, business owners, and visitors.
Millerton was also fortunate enough to be awarded two substantial grants over the past year. One to take on the enormous task of painting the water tower both inside and out as well as making needed repairs to fire hydrants and water meters. The second is to aid in the restoration of the recreational park which includes the baseball fields, basketball courts, and playground. This Board has been diligent in searching out aid that will help fund these projects in order to ultimately lessen the burden on taxpayers.
Local government, especially in our area, is a uniquely collaborative effort. How has your experience working with various village councils and boards shaped your perception of the village itself?
I have been fortunate to work with residents on the Village Board who have had the best interest of the village residents in mind and have worked collaboratively toward that goal; on how to improve the village for residents and visitors alike. In addition, I have been lucky to collaborate with three Town Supervisors (John Merwin, George Kaye, and Chris Kennan) who saw the village as a key component of the Town of North East and the success of each as reliant on the other. We were able to work as a united team and not as two separate entities struggling to co-exist.
Within the village, the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are composed of local volunteers who donate many hours to ensure the village progresses in a thoughtful manner. I feel Millerton is lucky to have this many dedicated individuals willing to work toward the common goal of improving the community.
Alongside with Town of North East Supervisor Chris Kennan, you have been an instrumental voice for the residents and business owners during the pandemic. You have provided an open line of communication as well as other resources for the last three difficult months. How did you find the experience of keeping the Village operating as well as possible during this crisis?
Communication was key. Sharing of information was vital with circumstances changing daily. I felt it important to disseminate as much information as possible. As surreal, overwhelming, and frightening as this crisis was at times, I feel the village employees and Village Board rose to the occasion and enabled the village to continue to provide essential services to the community, as did the Town. In addition, the Village Police Department has been active in distributing masks free to the public during this time.
Life continued but in a different way. For instance, the village began holding their meetings by virtually streaming them. In many ways, this made it easier for some to feel included by following the meetings online. Once again it demonstrated how working together truly benefits the community. We were also fortunate to have strong leadership at both the county and state level leading us through this crisis and providing local governments with the information and tools they needed.
As you reflect on your time in office, how would you summarize your overall experience as a community leader? What will you remember most and what do you see for the Village moving forward?
Overall it has been a very positive and hopeful experience. I learned a great deal and had an opportunity to work with a varied group of dedicated individuals who were all driven by a common force – commitment to their community.
Moving forward I am hopeful the village will see the development of a central sewer system. While this is a long and arduous process, we have made vital steps toward this goal by completing a feasibility study – which was funded by a grant – that will move us in the right direction. This will not only aid residents who are encumbered by small parcels, the project will also open the door to economic development which is currently hampered by having to operate within the constraints of small, individual septic systems. I also envision a newly renovated recreational park drawing visitors from in and outside of the area. I see great things on the Millerton’s horizon.
What I will remember most is opportunity. The incredible opportunity I was given to meet so many wonderful people that I otherwise may have never had the chance to encounter had I not served the community is this role. •