Mary Pat Driscoll bought an old 46-foot Coast Guard vessel two years ago, spent $20,000 fixing it up as a tour boat and started running weekend cruises along the Hudson River. Her launch point is Peekskill, a city she liked so much that last spring, she and her husband relocated there from New Jersey.
"We love the restaurants there. We like going hiking," she said. "We can walk to the train and riverfront. We can walk to the downtown. We're liking the city."
It's the kind of talk Peekskill officials want to keep hearing as the city embarks on about $8.5 million in upgrades this year to make the waterfront and downtown even more appealing and walkable. Projects range from new sidewalks and lampposts to designing acres of parks.
The work will improve public access to Peekskill's waterfront and spruce up an already bustling downtown in a city that's trying to clean up its scruffy edges. Add to that a thriving arts and music scene that soon will be anchored by the reopening of the 960-seat Paramount Center for the Arts, a venue that dates back to 1930. City officials are in the process of choosing an operator for the theater.
Residents of Peekskill, a city that sits on the Hudson River's Peekskill Bay, tout the scenic views looking across the water at both the Blue Mountain Reservation and Bear Mountain. Plus there's the convenience of a Metro-North train station running into Grand Central Station that is bringing up both day-tripping tourists and urban refugees who decide to stay.
At last count, the U.S. Census tallied 23,500 residents in Peekskill. But the population is growing, said Mayor Mary Foster.
"We're getting young people from Brooklyn and Manhattan, people following jobs in creative fields and technology, young families coming up from southern Westchester," she said.
Even though the weak economy has forced many developers to put projects on hold, Foster said the city needs to prepare for the day when they may come knocking on its door.
"We've been doing things to make Peekskill development-ready," she said. "Our overall strategy is to develop ourselves as a center for business and commerce in northern Westchester."
ON THE WATERFRONT
This year, about $7 million in state grants will be spent on improvements along the waterfront intended to help connect different stretches into one continuous walkable destination.
By the summer, construction crews should be out in force at the northern end, working on the future 4-acre Scenic Hudson Park at Peekskill Landing. A flat, grassy space was carved out last year, and $3 million in design improvements will bring walkways, a gazebo, a kayak launch, a boat dock, trails and an outdoor amphitheater by the end of next year, according to City Planner Jean Friedman.
At the same time, an additional $3.5 million is going toward upgrading the southern end of the waterfront, which is anchored by a small yacht club, city officials said. Here, raw, open space will become more user-friendly with the addition of benches, bike paths, pedestrian trails, a gazebo, plus a docking area for Driscoll's tour boat, the Evening Star.
Separately, construction will start this year on a plaza that will be the home of a new visitor center and the Lincoln Depot Museum, which pays homage to the 16th president. Neighbors include Peekskill Brewery, located across the street. In mid-December, the craft brewpub moved from its old address half a block away to a renovated, four-story, former furniture warehouse.
"We think of brewing as an industrial kind of business that belongs here," Berardi said. "Developing the tourism will only help us."
The waterfront face-lift will include the opening late this year of a Holiday Inn Express, which is under construction now.
Also, a $250,000 state grant will help pay for designing a trail that someday will loop around the Wheelabator, the county's solid waste plant, Friedman said.
BEAUTIFYING DOWNTOWN STREETS
Although the big news is the reopening of the historic Paramount Center for the Arts, other changes are on their way to downtown Peekskill.
Designers are developing a $1 million plan for Brown, South and Esther streets to plant trees, install new sidewalks and replace generic, cobra-head-shaped streetlights with lampposts that have a historic look, said the mayor.
To encourage overnight tourists, the city last year passed zoning legislation to permit bed-and-breakfasts in the downtown area. Plus the city parking lot next door to the library is undergoing a $250,000 overhaul that will dedicate 13 spaces just for book lovers when the work is completed by June, said city officials.
As part of an ongoing campaign to improve the look of Main Street, the city already has spent about $750,000 in grants to fix up 16 building facades since 2009, city officials said. Six more facades will be selected for a face-lift at a cost of $250,000, probably sometime this year, according to Friedman.
The mayor's goal of turning Peekskill into a thriving hub hearkens back to the city's glory days of the 1800s and early 1900s, according to Deborah Milone, executive director of Hudson Valley Gateway, a local business group.
"For many years, Peekskill was the place to go for shopping in the northern Westchester market," she said. "Back then, it was the main city in the northern end of the county."
Te city endured hard times in the 1970s, Milone said, and it took a clobbering from the economic downtown of the last recession.
But Peekskill is bouncing back.
"Over the last 15 years, the city has been reinventing itself with arts, music and restaurants," Milone said.