What could the city of Peekskill possibly have in common with Silicon Valley, Hollywood and New York City? Like those familiar centers of multimedia creativity and commerce, the historic river town is downright giddy with excitement about transforming itself into a mediapolis, to coin a phrase.
Thanks to local movers and shakers, led by prominent Peekskill businessman Ben Green, the transformation already is under way. Under the auspices of the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, and with the enthusiastic support of Peekskill Mayor Andre Rainey and the common council, Mr. Green quickly has mobilized a committee to launch an ambitious initiative called Art Industry Media (AIM). (Full disclosure, I am on the board and the committee.)
AIM was announced officially at a Jan. 31 press conference in the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art museum. An impressive roster of speakers was on hand to make the case for why Peekskill is poised to monetize the fast-growing multimedia industry as the centerpiece of an economic development plan.
To further reinforce the concept’s viability, a weekend of activities March 24-25 will showcase current multimedia businesses, organizations and activities throughout the city (visit artindustrymedia.com). Multimedia, says Ben Green, is any combination of text, audio, still images, moving images, animation or interactive content. “In other words,” he says, “the creative arts industry.”
Mr. Green himself is a musician who in 2002 had his solo recording “Two to One” chart as a Top 30 hit song. Today, he is owner of The Hat Factory, a 100,000-square-foot industrial complex at 1000 North Division St., virtually straddling the Peekskill-Cortlandt border.
His inspiration for AIM grew out of an astute realization of how his own business has evolved.
“Forty percent of my tenants are engaged in film, post-production, music, digital solutions, graphics, marketing, event design and production,” he told attendees at the Jan. 31 announcement. “That’s a big change for us. Not long ago, light manufacturing and warehousing made up most of our tenancy.”
He then ticked off the reasons that Peekskill has become a magnet for those business owners, including: one-hour commute to New York City; mass transit hub; affordable commercial space at $15-$20 per square foot versus at least three to four times as much per square foot in New York City; Peekskill’s well-established reputation as an arts community that is hospitable to creative professionals, with new artists’ lofts available downtown.
There’s also the not-insignificant attraction of affordable housing. That critical selling point was driven home by one of the speakers, Bre Pettis.
A Croton resident for the past five years, he is co-founder and past CEO of MakerBot, one of the earliest 3D printer companies. A man of many interests and a quick study, he also has been a puppeteer with Jim Henson’s creature shop and an art teacher in Seattle.
After selling MakerBot (since re-branded Stratasys) for enough money to retire on, he instead charged ahead by purchasing in 2017 a Berkeley, Calif., company called Bantam Tools.
Bantam produces a literally cutting-edge manufacturing device known as a “CNC tool.” It is a compact, tabletop machine that interfaces with computer-assisted design (CAD). It is used to create any pattern or shape from wood, plastic, foam or composites. Typical applications are woodworking, prototypes and in classrooms to prepare students for careers in engineering or vocational specialties.
After growing weary of making the cross-country trek from Croton to Berkeley every couple of weeks, Mr. Pettis decided to look into relocating Bantam to Peekskill, where he is a regular at the iconic Peekskill Coffee House, which he frequents with his young daughter.
One day, he asked Coffee House owner Sunny Cover who would be a good person to talk with about moving his company to Peekskill. Without hesitation, she replied, “Ben Green.” The two became fast friends, with the well-connected Mr. Green helping Bre Pettis navigate the local commercial real estate landscape and explaining the AIM concept, which Mr. Pettis called “really powerful.”
By the end of 2018, Mr. Pettis expects Bantam Tools to be up and running in Peekskill, with a five-year plan to add more than 50 jobs to his workforce. He intends to become a brand ambassador for Peekskill, encouraging other entrepreneurs to move their businesses there, with an arsenal of anecdotes and ammo to bolster his sales pitch to them.
When Mr. Pettis brought in his California employees to check out Peekskill, he says they were impressed by the affordable living quarters—compared with $2,800-a-month one-bedroom units in Berkeley—and by the backyards where their dogs could run free.
What also helped Bre Pettis and his team become enamored with Peekskill as the future home for Bantam Tools is something that the lively city has very much in common with Berkeley: a live-and-let-live openness and support of rugged individualism. Peekskill doesn’t hew to a cookie-cutter culture.
“There’s something really powerful about the friendliness of the community you’ve built here,” he told the press conference attendees, which included many Peekskill luminaries, including ubiquitous restaurant owner and city cheerleader Louie Lanza of Hudson Hospitality Group.
“My employees felt like they could be at home here as people from diverse backgrounds,” said Bre Pettis. “The quality of life is good here.”
As an example of the comfort level he has both felt and observed in the city, Mr. Pettis recalled walking into the popular restaurant Birdsall House the day before Halloween.
“I was the guy not dressed as a woman. That says it’s OK to be different, it’s OK to be yourself. That’s part of who you are as a community.”