The Village of Haverstraw in New York is a small town always bustling with life; whether it’s a food crawl on Main Street, music and arts festivals in Emeline Park, or arts Focus Groups at the Haverstraw Community Center, there is always some initiative or event to be a part of. And you can always guarantee our local Mayor, Michael Kohut will be right there experiencing it with you! Mayor Kohut, a resident of the Village of Haverstraw, successfully carries out a dual role as both a government official and an active member and unabashed promoter of the community. HaverstrawLife got an inside scoop into the life of Mayor Michael Kohut, both in and outside of the office!
Tell us a little bit about yourself, about your educational background.
Mayor Mike: Well, I went to school for history and political science, so that naturally leads to law and government. I did go to law school, graduated and practiced law for about 5 years. Then I was downsized out of a firm and went into food service industry and stayed there for 20 years.
Was becoming the mayor something you’ve always wanted to do?
Mayor Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever had that as a goal. From fairly early on, in high school, I knew I wanted to be involved in public service, law, that sort of arena, to try and give back to the community.
So how did you transition over from your previous industry to government, and eventually the position of Mayor?
Mayor Mike: What got me involved in local government and politics was going to board meetings, originally to complain about political signs staying up far beyond the political season. So I went to a Village Board meeting or two because of that. Then, I started going to board meetings to see what was going on in the village and I became more involved in committees. In the village it was a bit of a tumultuous time, so after I got involved, I ultimately ran for office back in 1992.
As a result of that, I served a term as Village Trustee, left the board, and then was asked to run again in 2003 for Trustee, which I did. Then in 2007, I ran for Mayor, and I have been Mayor ever since.
Have you lived in Haverstraw your whole life?
Mayor Mike: Yes, I’m a third generation Haverstrawee.
Very cool. I know you mentioned you were working on some grants when I walked in, so that’s one of many things that you do. So what’s the daily life as a mayor like?
Mayor Mike: Sometimes mundane, sometimes not. In my mornings I start off riding through the village, just checking on things, see what might be going on. I get into the office, and have a morning staff meeting with 3-4 of my department heads. E-mails, correspondence in and out, depending on what the hot button issue is at the time. It could be the weather, could be the ongoin Downtown Streetscape Project, or any other problems or issues in the various departments of Village government.
For those who might not know what the Streetscape Project is, could you give a little summary of what it entails?
Mayor Mike: It encompasses the entire Centeal Business District, New Main Street, Main Street and Broadway. It’s a project that will render new sidewalks with brick pavers, since this is Bricktown U.S.A., so our designer wanted to incorporate bricks into it. Additionally, new granite curbs, street trees, decorative street lighting, street furniture, garbage cans, and benches. Also, an all new road surface. As part of the project, we had hoped to remove the utility poles by either burying them underground or by putting wires behind buildings in rear alleyways, but that was extremely expensive. Nonetheless, what we were able to do was get utility companies to install taller poles, thus moving all electric and telephone lines up higher so they are out of your view and not block the ornate building cornices.
Oh I see, so just to continue to beautify the area. So, the streetscape project, was that something that you developed yourself, or was it passed to you?
Mayor Mike: It was passed on to me. It started before I was on the Board in 2003, working within the bureaucracy of the NYS Department of Transportation, we finally broke ground in September 2016. We are probably about 20% done with the project. It truly is a transformative project.
When do you think you’ll complete the project?
Mayor Mike: We are hoping, knock on wood, with good weather, we can wrap it all up in 2017. If not 2017, then the first half of 2018.
Very nice. So as our first resident spotlight participant, we would love to hear more about you and your story. What do you love about Haverstraw, in other words, what has kept you here?
Mayor Mike: I come from a small-town blue-collar family, and that’s what Haverstraw is. It is a small-town, blue-collar community. Despite the fact that Haverstraw has changed a lot over the years demographically, it’s still made of people that you know, people that work hard, and yes people that are struggling to acheive the American Dream of prosperity via hard work. You can go down any street, and there are people you may have known for the past 2-3 years or people you have known for the past 50 years. I think that its sort of quintessential Americana. We are such a melting pot; a mixed salad of ethnicities. Sometimes it gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling, and sometimes it drives you crazy (laughs). Haverstraw is the kind of place where “small town” means something real. Often times, communities are cookie cutter, but this is not a cookie cutter community. We are not a typical suburb.
“Haverstraw is the kind of place where ‘small town’ means something real.”
I stumbled upon an interview in 2009, by Adam S. He mentioned many people thought Haverstraw was going to become the “new” Nyack or some other gentrification river town. In the interview you said that Haverstraw needs to find its own niche. Now comparing 2009 to 2017, do you feel that this viewpoint has changed? Has Haverstraw found its “niche?”
Mayor Mike: We are still finding our place, our “niche” so to say. The recession didn’t help us, it slowed things down, and caused everything to reset. Property values went down, people were over-extended. We saw foreclosures and businesses shuttering. So everything that happened to everybody else throughout the heartland of this country happened to us, too. That being said, we are really looking to become different; the hard reset has helped us take a step back and “see” ourselves. We have a far more expansive waterfront than most other river towns, and it will be almost completely publicly accessible. We have large parts of property we have yet to develop. The Harbors at Haverstraw neighborhood has continued to grow during the apartment construction boom that’s ongoing. We are looking forward to all of this and to re-envisioning ourselves as an urban enclave.
We still have a lot of work to do in our Business District. We need more destination shopping, whether that’s bars or restaurants, that people will come from outside to go to or niche shopping like boutique clothing or antiques. We still have a ways to go. However, if we can continue to expand on our waterfront, improve downtown with the new streetscape, and create something unique that draws people in, then I think we will get back onto the road to finding our ultimate destination.
Well, in this past year since I’ve moved here, Haverstraw has been exploding with events like the Food Crawl, the RiverArts Festival and Candy Cane making demonstrations during Holidays in Haverstraw.
Mayor Mike: Yes, there are a lot of things and events to draw people in. Some of these events have been quite successful.
Right, so how do you feel about those things. Did you enjoy these events?
Mayor Mike: I think these events are great. The greatest thing about them is that they are not government run. They have been organized by the community and local businesses. The Food Crawl wasn’t my idea. It was brought on by residents and business people who wanted to see Haverstraw grow. That is really encouraging to see, because we need to draw outsiders in here. Once people come in and see it’s a cool and funky kind of place, then they are a lot more likely to come back. From the first Food Crawl last year, some people from Suffern had never really been here, but they tried 3-4 of the restaurants and said they would be back again because they thought it was such an interesting and diverse place.
Those were amazing ideas brought in by other people in the community. Do you have any ideas this year, or for the future that you want to bring into the ‘Straw?
Mayor Mike: We started the Farmers Market. Dancing Under the Stars was a collaboration that has become a Village project as well. These events have been quite successful.
Oh, what is Dancing Under the Stars?
Mayor Mike: Twice a year we have musical entertainment on the streets of Haverstraw. The Town mobile stage comes down, we have a band play, and about 500 people basically hang out for a block party. Literally in the street. It’s great. We do it on a couple of Friday evenings. And it’s a lot of fun. It has grown to become an event for all people. Old-time Haverstraw residents come down, new neighbors show up, former residents come back. The Village had a part in doing that. Same thing with the Haverstraw River Arts Festival. The Village has been a participant in that and it grew out of lemons; we made lemonade. There was another project that was supposed to happen, a sort of musical event that didn’t pan out. And this was a bootstrapped version of the event that has blossomed into something amazing.
We are going to keep trying to make the Festival bigger and better, because let’s face it, Emeline Park is a beautiful place, and we need to get more people down to enjoy it. We need to make use of our amazing community assets.
There are some great features here, there is the harbor, and the ferry.
Mayor Mike: Yep, and all that waterfront in the Harbors is public, all the way over to the ferry. You can walk Downtown and go to the park. Ultimately, the rest of the underdeveloped property north of Emeline will have a promenade all the way around and you can walk over to Bowline Point Park. That is our goal because that connectivity is what people really want. Making walkable connections will drive our economy.
When people come to Haverstraw they can go up to Main Street for coffee or dinner and continue on their way. Haverstraw is kind of out of the way in the grand scheme of Rockland County and even in the Lower HUDSON Valley. We only have 9W and 202 to get cars to us, and we aren’t at a big crossroads like Nyack is. So you do what you can; right now you need a reason to come up to Haverstraw and we are going to try and give you that reason. Haverstraw is a hidden gem. Ultimately, that notion may be our biggest asset.
Having more walkable space will be great for Haverstraw. Switching gears, do you have a role model or a hero you look up to? Any inspirational figure?
Mayor Mike: Probably my father. He has just been a stabilizing force for all of my family members. He and my mother raised 6 kids and got us all to where we wanted to be in life. He was a WWII veteran, and he came from a time where his father wouldn’t let him go to college. He had all the academics for it, but his father told him that you don’t need to go to college, so he went into the workforce. One of the hardest things for me was knowing that I made more money than my father made at his highest point in his career. I’m sure my father is glad of that, but knowing the hours he worked and the things he did, well it’s the idea that you’ve arrived where you are, but don’t feel like you have arrived. I never worked as physically hard as him. Younger generations have that privilege because them. You know, the American Dream. . .
I understand that. So what is your vision for Haverstraw, this year, or in the next 5 years?
Mayor Mike: I don’t want to see it made over, bulldozed, and rebuilt. I want to see it restored to its former grandeur, freshened up, and truly revitalized and renovated. The homes and architecture here are terrific. The people are terrific. Sometimes you just need some lipstick and mascara. Or even just a new perspective on what we have. Also, just bringing in more people, more diversity, whether it’s financial diversity, ethnic diversity, business acumen, education or artistic knowledge. Businesses come and go quickly, and we need people who have some more staying power with businesses. We try to encourage people to know the market, so find the unfilled business niche here. We try to do that on a casual-friendly basis. What’s going to make your business different and thrive?
I am always here and always willing to talk to people about their business ideas, not that I am any business guru, but I know what can work here, and I like to see people happy and making money by doing these things, and if their customers are happy, then they come back to Haverstraw. It’s this whole cycle of life. It’s a virtuous cycle that we are hoping to spark.
Do you feel like some sort of chain should come here, like a Starbucks or a Panera Bread?
Mayor Mike: Yes, I’ve been talking with a person that does a lot of siting for national chains, and they said that Haverstraw is difficult for a lot of reasons, like traffic counts for example. But I think that both of those ideas would be great in Haverstraw. I think we can do a Starbucks-like coffee shop down in Haverstraw and still make it successful. I’m not knockin’ Starbucks, I’m not a coffee drinker so I couldn’t tell you whether their coffee is good or not (laughs). There are also good opportunities for upstart coffee shops and bakeries. We don’t necessarily need a chain.
You know, corporate America doesn’t always exist well in small town America. But we can have a coffee shop here that makes a boatload of money, and it doesn’t have to be Starbucks. And same thing with Panera, you can have a great sandwich and soup shop here and it doesn’t have to be Panera. I would love to see one, and I wouldn’t say no to either if they would like to come here. However, I think a young entrepreneur could do it for a lot cheaper if they came here. And we would bend over backwards to make it happen down here. Again, we want to support startups. We want to boost that virtuous cycle of local business supporting the community and vice versa.
Is there anything you would like to say to the residents of Haverstraw, anything you would like them to know?
Mayor Mike: I hope that people realize that we try everyday to make life in Haverstraw a little easier and a little better for our residents. We don’t always get it right, but I can tell you that the employees here at Village Hall, many of whom are or were village residents do care about the jobs that they do and try to make Haverstraw a better place. And that’s what we all try to do. The best thing that can be said to me, is that a resident loves Haverstraw because of XYZ. It’s a positive experience that someone is feeling and that’s the best form of approval we get.
Thank you so much Mayor Mike for participating in this interview! You’re our first Spotlight. I hope you had as good a time chatting as did I. Thanks for opening up to us and sharing your story. We’ll be back for more in the future!
Would you, or anyone you know, like to be featured in featured in our next resident spotlight? Send us an e-mail at either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com . All Haverstraw community members are welcome!