Size matters: Small businesses thrive to survive in Poughkeepsie

Businesses in America tend to be divided in to the big businesses, owned in franchises, and small businesses, owned and run individually. The City of Poughkeepsie in New York has seen its share of both a small-business-ruled city as well a big-business-ruled city.

America loves capitalism as much as it likes underdogs, showing that a good business dynamic tends to tickle the country’s fancy. The City of Poughkeepsie used to be a hub where small business owners could establish their trades and prosper from the people of the city. However, in the late 1950s the city saw some changes regarding big and small businesses with the opening of the Poughkeepsie Plaza shopping center.

The Poughkeepsie Plaza was the first shopping center built in Dutchess County. The Poughkeepsie Plaza was first opened in 1958 and is located on US Route 9, which runs through Delaware, New Jersey and New York. It was first a super market strip center, but was later developed into an enclosed mall.

Interior of Soul Dog
Interior of Soul Dog

“I have fond memories of Main Street before the mall existed,” Jenny Teague, co-founder of Soul Dog, a hot dog joint in Poughkeepsie, said. “Poughkeepsie used to be known as the queen of the Hudson.”

Teague opened Soul Dog in 2004. Located in downtown Poughkeepsie, the hot dog joint is surrounded by other privately-owned businesses ranging from pizza places to hair salons. However, Teague says things have been better for small businesses in the past.

“The 1980s were not really a good time around here.” Teague said. “Crime was up, the creation of the mall which blocked off Main Street in two chunks killed businesses and the shopping malls that cropped up around that time, the first being the Poughkeepsie Plaza mall drew businesses out of downtown and so it changed everything.”

The effects of the Poughkeepsie Plaza opening in the late 1950s were not felt as strongly as in the 1980s when most downtown stores started moving or going out of business because of the rising number of stores along Route 9 and other more convenient and heavily trafficked places.

In 2012, Forbes named Poughkeepsie the third best city for jobs, stating “home to Vassar College and the Culinary Institute of America, [it] is also attracting a growing number of healthcare jobs including at the expanding Vassar Brothers Medical Center. Unemployment topped at 8.1% in 2010, still below the national average, and Moody’s expects the area to add 16,750 jobs by 2016.” Poughkeepsie seems to be showing some sort of recovery from the 1980s.

“I think Poughkeepsie is barely recovering at this point from that, but that had a really negative impact and took a really, really big toll on the city and its residents,” Teague said. “Poughkeepsie has lots of potential and it always has.”

Today, most of Poughkeepsie is run by big businesses, with more and more malls opening around the city including the Poughkeepsie Galleria in 1987, the biggest mall in New York’s Hudson Valley region. The construction of the Galleria mall and its 250 stores caused not only some smaller businesses to close but also some other big businesses. South Hills Mall, which was located across from the Galleria and was known to be the dominant retail center of Dutchess County until the opening of Galleria, closed in 2007.

Small businesses have a hard time staying open in Poughkeepsie. Across the Hudson River in New Paltz, many small businesses rule the streets with very little franchises in sight. This is commonly thought to be due to New Paltz being considered a “college city” or a city mostly run and inhabited by young college students.

In Poughkeepsie, one of the largest collections of small businesses can be found around Vassar College, where it almost seems as though one is in a miniature New Paltz by the larger number of small businesses and small number of franchises.

An employee for the City of Poughkeepsie’s Economic Development Division who preferred to stay anonymous said that the reason for the small number of small businesses in Poughkeepsie is rent. “It’s hard making a profit as a small business when you’re located a few minutes from a large shopping center,” the anonymous employee said. “And if you don’t make more than what you pay in rent, you don’t have much choice but to shut down.”

In 2011, Forbes gave Poughkeepsie the 15th place in its Cities Where Economies Are Getting Worse for having “a substantial population exodus compared with city size, a housing market that has yet to hit bottom and a significant number of mortgage loans delinquent by 90 days or more.”

While big businesses currently run most of Poughkeepsie, there is always an attempt by small business owners to thrive in the city. While some stores and restaurants may not last long in Poughkeepsie, such as Wraps Around the World which closed in 2011 after a very short run, some places like Soul Dog are hard to replace with big business franchises and will run for a longer time.

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