Transition Catskills proposes 'Catskills dollars,' tool libraries, and farmers' markets

About two dozen people attended the first public forum of Transition Catskills, a group dedicated to making the Catskills more economically resilient, on Wednesday night at the Open Eye Theater in Margaretville.

“This was our first effort to organize a conversation,” said Jeff Tomasi, a former partner at Goldman Sachs who helped found the group.

There will be another film screening and public forum for the Transition Catskills movement on Saturday, July 26, at 4 p.m. at the Roxbury Arts Center in Roxbury.

Tomasi, who owns a second home in the Delaware County town of Middletown, also lives in London, where he first got word of Transition, an initiative that began in England around 2006 and addressed issues of oil dependence and economic instability.

“I’m not a leader, I’m a facilitator,” Tomasi told the group. “I’m not here to tell people how to live. Just here to start the dialogue.”

The forum began with a screening of the film “In Transition 1.0: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience,” a documentary on the Transition Network, a global movement that encourages communities to become self-reliant — building sustainable practices in business, agriculture, energy and transportation while minimizing the environmental footprint.

The movie described dwindling global oil supplies and global warming, and an uncertain economic and environmental future if these problems are not addressed. It then showed the ways various communities, many of them in the United Kingdom, have responded to those problems on a local level.

Members of the Transition Catskills steering committee paused the documentary at intervals to discuss topics such as food, transportation, and economics.

'We need money'

The movie prompted a lively discussion, with attendees describing their concerns for the future of the Catskills. Many audience members said they had heard of Transition Catskills, but didn't know what it was.

Gail Lennstrom said that Catskills residents would be more receptive to a video that features local community figures and highlights the work toward sustainability in the area that has already begun, such as farmer’s markets and restaurants that use locally sourced food.

“England in 2009 does not resonate," she said.

Some audience members said that the Catskills face more immediate economic problems.

"Margaretville's Main Street is dying," said one man who attended. "We need money."

Front row seat

There are an estimated 1,100 communities that have taken on Transition initiatives around the world, and Tomasi is hopeful the Catskills will soon be one of them.

As a Goldman Sachs partner, Jeff Tomasi got what he called a “front row seat” to the financial crisis of 2008 — a crisis he believes went hand-in-hand with resource depletion, as the price of oil rose to $147 a barrel that year.

There are no rigid guidelines for transition; rather, transition can take shape in a variety of forms, Tomasi said. What transition might look like in the Catskills depends on what the community deems important, he said.

Catskills dollars, tool libraries, and farmers' markets

The steering committee of Transition Catskills has a few suggestions for local projects.

Phil Lenihan, owner of the Orphic Gallery in Roxbury and member of the Transition Catskills steering committee, said a lot of their ideas are simple, old-fashioned, common-sense solutions — “nothing revolutionary.”

“Responsible development can be economically viable,” he said.

Coming from a financial background, Tomasi said he is intrigued by the idea of developing a form of “community cash” — currency that can only be used within the region in an effort to keep wealth cycling in the community.

The group has already designed a model "Catskills Dollar" that bears the image of John Burroughs.

Other ideas include farmers' markets, farm-to-table initiatives, a tool library, and a ride-sharing network that could pool the resources of local restaurants that routinely need to send drivers to Kingston to buy food.

Such ways of sharing resources, such as a tool library, are practical community endeavors worth pursuing, Lenihan said.

Tomasi emphasized the importance of collaboration and engaging the community in a conversation about the unique needs of the Catskills before moving forward.

Below: “In Transition 1.0: From Oil Dependence to Local Resilience,” a film screened by the Transition Catskills group.