JACKSON — Ted Berndt is one person who sees what Washington County could be.
When he trudges across the 175-acre site he bought just outside Cambridge — an old mushroom farm, with 24 connected buildings where the mushrooms were grown — he sees a busy indoor-outdoor market, with farmers, artisans and furniture-makers, Amish merchants from Whitehall and Mennonites from Hoosick Falls.
On a recent chilly afternoon, Berndt and I were the only ones at the site, wandering through a complex of metal-sided buildings in the middle of a field surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Berndt has big plans and he has a big site on which to realize them. In the meantime, he’s renting out space for winter storage of boats and cars.
Berndt is 52, tall and solid and soft-spoken. He used to work in Baldwinsville as a quality manager for Anheuser-Busch, then was a northern New York sales representative for Pfizer, the drug company.
He’s not the fast-talking, best-buddy sort of salesman. He’s a reasonable sort of man who on this day was dressed in work boots and a canvas jacket, and he laid out in soothing tones why his site is right for a regional once-a-week market.
He let me make my own judgments, and despite the evidence of my senses, as I stood in the chilly field after an hour’s drive through the sparsely settled hills of Washington County, I felt the stirrings of belief.
Berndt is more than a guy with a lot of land and a dream. He’s practical. He paid only $136,500 for the property at tax sale, and he got the assessment lowered to $240,000 so his taxes are only $7,000 a year. He makes money on the storage.
The complex includes an old packing plant that has functional offices and a 3-phase 16-amp electrical control panel as big as an industrial freezer, which Berndt says would cost $150,000 new.
He has tried out other visions for the site — he applied for one of the state’s marijuana-growing licenses but didn’t get it and he floated a proposal to make the property a gathering place for breweries.
Now he says Windmill Farm in Penn Yan — in the Finger Lakes region — is the model he’s working from. The farm and crafts market has about 200 shops, features performances like folk dancing and attracts about 10,000 customers on Saturdays, the only day it’s open, from May through mid-December.
I don’t know if Ted Berndt’s vision will materialize, but I know he’s got the right idea. Washington County has a wealth of attractions, including specialty foods, arts, crafts and an authentic country feel that people from urban and suburban areas will pay to experience.
What the county needs is some way to draw all these attractions together and promote them.
Not many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to Lake George every summer find their way east into Washington County, and not much of the Vermont crowd trickles over the border, either.
But that could change if the county offered tourists a central place to experience its appeal. Right now, the Washington County experience is scattered throughout farms and studios and barns along hundreds of miles of winding back roads.
It’s hard to create an attraction out of empty buildings and an empty field on a limited budget. But Berndt has a chance. Sooner or later, Washington County is going to get discovered, and someone like Berndt is going to do very well.