From her Newburgh office, March Gallagher has a picture-postcard view of the Hudson River — which is quite appropriate. As chief strategy officer for Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress (PFP), seeing the big picture is an essential part of the job. Gallagher spends much of her day pondering tough questions: In what way is the aging population going to affect health care? How do we handle declining school enrollment?
PFP is a nonprofit think-tank founded in 1965 with the mission to improve quality of life in the Valley. Part of that mission involves finding ways for growth to occur without harming open spaces.
“I’m not anti-business and anti-development. If you can’t sustain your economic side, then you’re going to have more environmental impacts that are terrible,” she says.
Definitely a freethinker from the start, Gallagher grew up in Woodstock and headed out at age 16 to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she was active in anti-apartheid protests. She even served as a student liaison, working with a banking firm to craft a divestment strategy in South Africa. “The administration said, ‘We’ll change our portfolio to make you happy, but it’s not going to change life in South Africa.’ But it did!”
After graduation, Gallagher earned two master’s degrees — an M.S. in environmental studies from Bard and an M.A. in public policy from SUNY Albany — and a law degree from Boston University School of Law. She went on to work at a high-powered corporate law firm in Boston, where she fielded her share of environmental litigation cases.
In 2001, the desire for a more balanced life brought Gallagher back to the Hudson Valley. Though she refers to her “lost decade” of raising her kids (she has five under age 13 — three of her own and two by marriage — as well as another stepdaughter in college), her resume reveals otherwise. In 2006, she became the first-ever chairwoman of the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency and later served on the agency’s board. In 2009, Ulster County executive Mike Hein asked her to head up economic development. In that position, her tireless mission was to keep businesses in the area.
“We’re an expensive place. For space and financial reasons, family-owned businesses were getting ready to move,” she recalls. “We worked hard to help them find new locations and problem-solve, everything from dealing with storm water in parking lots to knowing which loan guarantee is the best.” Most recently, as director of business services, she was the point of contact for all economic development activities within the county.
In her new position at PFP, Gallagher is still thinking about how to hold on to our population; one major project is trying to bring down the cost of living to keep young people in the area. “Our staff is talking right now about how to keep more youth in the Valley. With all the colleges in Poughkeepsie, why is it not the coolest place on earth? There’s an affordability gap for young people, especially those burned by student loan debt. They’re leaving for inexpensive southern states.”
Still, she thinks that’s about to change: “Here’s my personal theory: Something that has plagued the Hudson Valley is that it is a chain of cities rather than one big city. But I think that will be an asset over the next 20 years,” says Gallagher. “To be a small city surrounded by good rural economy — where you can have access to the services of an urban environment and walk-ability, and yet get out and pick apples or walk along the river — that’s quality of life.”
For young women in the workplace, Gallagher believes it’s most important to stand out. “Don’t try to be like everybody else,” she says. “Find the things that interest you that other people might not necessarily want to do, and do them. That’s when you really shine.”