KINGSTON, N.Y. — Driving into Kingston from the East, on the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge that spans the Hudson River about 90 miles north of New York City, the Catskills fill the horizon. But the scenic vista isn’t the only presence here; a small city and bustling retail scene lies at the foot of the mountains.

The greater Kingston area includes the City of Kingston and the Town of Ulster, in addition to several smaller towns and hamlets. The City of Kingston has a population of about 24,000, and the surrounding towns have populations ranging from 2,000 to 12,000, according to the Census Bureau.

Kingston’s retail offerings, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other big-box chains may be representative of similarly sized upstate communities facing shrinking manufacturing industries and an influx of residents from professional fields, but the area’s retail mix wasn’t always like this. Rather, it has evolved to meet the diverse needs of the significantly altered community.

Over the past five years, there’s been explosive development and redevelopment here, mostly concentrated along a 1-mile stretch of Route 9W. Since the fall of 2004, at least a dozen major retail chains opened their doors along this corridor, including Kohl’s, Barnes & Noble, Ann Taylor Loft, Talbots and Chico’s.

Ward Todd, president of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce, said the strength of the housing market — home prices have more than doubled in the past decade — has recast the retail landscape in the Kingston area. Buyers coming from Rockland and Westchester Counties and even Manhattan in search of more affordable land and housing, as well as a strong market for second homes, has brought stores that reflect the tastes of a more sophisticated clientele.

“There’s been rapid change in our demographic profile,” Todd said. “There are significantly more full-time residents moving into the area and a lot of second-home buyers as well.”

Todd said retailers such as Talbots and Chico’s, and other “more upscale stores,” opening in the market reflects this shift in demographics. “It shows that shoppers in the area can afford [higher-priced goods],” Todd said. “So this is a welcomed change.”

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After 9/11, prices for homes doubled in some parts of the county. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in Kingston was $31,594 in 2000 while the median house value was $86,000. The average home price in Ulster County was about $100,000.

Today, the average home price in the county is about $260,000, according to Westwood Metes & Bounds Realty, while the average price in the City of Kingston is about $94,000. The median household income in Kingston is roughly $42,000, according to data from Sperling’s BestPlaces. This is above the national average of $38,000.

Local officials and business owners say most of the new home buyers tend to be well educated and have relatively high-paying jobs. Retailers catering to this type of customer include specialty apparel and home goods chains, which tend to garner higher price points with a tightly focused assortment of goods.

Coldwater Creek at Ulster Crossing, for example, offers women’s skirts, tops, pants and jackets with price points between $60 and $120. Talbots, also located at Ulster Crossing, offers women’s apparel, including career wear and suits, with the bulk of price points ranging from $90 to $300. Chico’s and Ann Taylor Loft, also at Ulster, are satisfying the needs of career women and soccer moms.

Of course, a large number of consumers in the area are attracted to opening price points, and they have a lot of stores to choose from. There’s Wal-Mart and Target on the mass-market front, discounters such as Burlington Coat Factory, Home Goods and Marshall’s, and Dollar Tree for the extremely thrifty.

The city is divided into three sections: uptown, midtown and the Rondout. The uptown section, also known as the stockade district, is the historic center of Kingston, with colonial stone houses dating from the 18th century. The Rondout is another historic area located on the banks of the Rondout River. Both sections were separate villages in the 19th century. In 1872, the villages merged and as the city grew.

Kingston and the surrounding towns have rich histories in the coal, bluestone, leather-tanning and textiles industries. The region has gone through several ups and downs — much like similar cities across the Northeast — over the past 100 years. One of the more devastating periods was when IBM closed a manufacturing plant in Kingston in the mid-Nineties. The local economy was stung by the loss of thousands of better-paying jobs.

Back then, shopping centered on the Hudson Valley Mall on Route 9W. Opened in 1981, it was anchored by J.C. Penney, Kmart and Hess’s. Several years later the mall was expanded to include a food court and Sears, as well as more than a dozen smaller specialty stores.

In 1995, Kmart moved out of the mall to another location on 9W. Hess’s closed its doors around the same time, and Filene’s took over its space. Best Buy and Target moved into the Hudson Valley Mall in 2000. A month after 9/11, Dick’s Sporting Goods and H&M opened at the mall.

On the opposite side of 9W on the site of a former Montgomery Ward unit, the Ulster Crossing shopping center was built. Its store lineup includes Sports Authority, Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Pier 1 Imports, Coldwater Creek, Ann Taylor Loft, Talbots, Chico’s and Panera Bread.

In the uptown section of the city, there was an Ames Department Store. Numerous mom-and-pop shops dotted Ulster Avenue and Route 9W. Ames closed in 2000, and the property remains vacant.

On store visits earlier this month, Target, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Sears were promoting Mother’s Day sales. Kohl’s marked down fine jewelry by 50 percent. Sears reduced its Apostrophe fashions 30 percent, while J.C. Penney pushed a $99.99, “your choice” sale on pendants, rings and other jewelry.

Three national sporting goods stores — including Dick’s, the Sports Authority and Gander Mountain — are all within a quarter mile of each other on Route 9W. In addition, there’s a large sporting goods department at Wal-Mart. The proximity of the Catskills, a recreational haven for hunters, hikers, fishermen, backpackers and campers may explain why the market supports these outlets.

Regarding development in the city, new retail shops continue to open. The city has also seen a burgeoning art scene. About a dozen galleries have opened over the past six years, and the city also boasts a performing arts center.

Todd said there’s room for further business development and redevelopment in the area, as well as residential growth, and noted that several major residential projects are in the works, including a 1,700-unit Kingston waterfront project and an uptown condominium plan.

“I think we’re still affordable here,” he said, “especially if you’re coming up from Rockland or Westchester.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series of articles in which WWD visits markets “off the beaten path” of the regular retail and fashion haunts of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In this series, which takes readers on a journey across the U.S., WWD will see how peripheral markets evolve, what brands are in demand, how retailers merchandise their goods and what it takes to thrive in these markets. Today, “On the Road With WWD” stops in Kingston, N.Y., located at the eastern gateway into the Catskill Mountains.

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