Community focus is returning

Community focus is returning

Local community focus is returning.  In the mid 1900’s, the focus shifted from Main Street USA to shopping malls and from there was the birth of the big box stores all while the popular and familiar mom and pop businesses were closing down everywhere.  The days of personal connection were going away.

So corporate America was born and bigger seemed better, but was it better overall for us ? 

Prices were slightly better but the taskmaster became the bottom line and customer care and kindness retired early.  We traded our uniqueness for a number.  Mr and Mrs. America became customer #D451 and not Bob or Mary Jones. 

In a twist of fate, staying home during the pandemic reunited us all and if one ventured out at all, it was only to a neighborhood store and then straight home.  We once again could see the value of connection and trust.  America wanted to do business with someone they knew and felt comfortable with, and not a faceless corporate bean counter.  Barcode check outs were not far away.

Close to home here in the Catskills while the nation endured a paralyzing pandemic,  Ed Ullmann of the mountain top community pharmacy Wellness Rx, figured out that corporate pharmacy and healthcare in America were under-serving those that needed help the most and found a way to change that immediately.  He designed a blueprint to open America’s first community nonprofit pharmacy, for the public good of all and mostly to help tomorrow’s kids.  He would convert his Tannersville location to a nonprofit business model to protect it and save it from corporate raiders and then open the first “Pharmacy for the Public Good” in Phoenicia, NY in the summer of 2022.

After striking a deal with Mike Riccadella, a local businessman and Phoenicia restaurateur, who had just the perfect vacant space available, he and Ed would breathe wellness back into it.  

A lifetime capitalist, Ullmann knew that he could do more for the community as a nonprofit business, but would the community feel the same way?  Ed placed his spotlight on healthcare and wellness as a must have anchor for strong and thriving communities in alignment with education and libraries, strong town government, services and infrastructure.  But how would he make it work ?

The deal was set and now Ullmann shared his idea to those who lived in Phoenicia. The set up a grassroots fundraising campaign and with their emotional and financial partnership, Wellness Rx would return pharmacy and wellness services to a hamlet on the rebound, left barren of primary healthcare services, several years ago.

Ed first met with Jay Jacobs, a home-bred, successful businessman and two time and current Chairman of the New York State Democratic Party.  Jacobs grew up locally and now runs many thriving businesses, including many beautiful summer camps and the superb Shandaken Inn, with a fantastic dining room.  After a pleasant greeting, the two men sat in the Inn’s plush lounge and Ed answered Jay’s questions about what Ed was going to do with his vision.  Within thirty minutes, Ed was smiling and on his way back to Wellness Rx with a deal that if Wellness Rx could raise fifty thousand dollars, Jay Jacobs would match that amount in kind.

Within two weeks time, Ed reached back to Jay to let him know his challenge had been met by the very next potential donor he met.  Two meetings, one hundred thousand dollars raised.  The vision overnight had become real and Wellness Rx Phoenicia was well on its way to opening this summer.

The real “beauty” of all of this activity is that this deal was pulled together by the community itself and not in a corporate boardroom.  A six figure donation for Wellness Rx in the heart of Shandaken was literally “cut” in a hair salon on main street.

For fifty years, Debra Jo Bower, who owns Debra Jo’s Unisex Hair Styling, has been beautifying Phoenicia from the neck up for several generations of local and loyal families. For Debra Jo, these are her friends, her family and recently, she helped create a new “look” on Main Street in Phoenicia NY, by introducing two of her local customers to each other.

Ed has been getting his haircut from Debra Jo for many decades and they always share what is going on in their lives with each other and what is the local buzz.  When she heard of Ed’s plans to reopen a drug store that will change the wellness industry in her town, she went to work planning and scheming.

She placed another local client right after Ed’s appointment and introduced the two men to each other.  The other gentleman was also connected to the medical industry.  Darrell Fontenot and his wife Mary are local attorney’s from Mount Tremper and Darrell works on patents for Moderna.  As you can imagine, he has been very busy over that last few years

Mary and Darrell are from the south (Louisiana) but have worked in and lived in the northeast in Boston and New York City for a few decades now and they love living here in the Catskills, especially since they can work remotely.  A big plus these days.

“People who work in New York City for a long career have a place to escape to for the weekend and my cousin rented a place up here and so we wanted to do that too.  My cousin told me that Shandaken, Pine Hill and Phoenicia were the places to be so I wrote it on a yellow sticky and I put it on our dresser top in our bedroom. It was there for six years and after 911 we needed a place to escape to from the city,” said Darrell.

The Fontenot’s rented for a while and then bought their first Catskills home and now live in the second house that has been their residential oasis for all the northeast work they have had in New York, New Haven and Boston since moving north.  They could always get here within a few hours drive and it now is their permanent home, with a budding farm attached.

“We love it here and New York has only brought us opportunity and joy,” offered Darrell and Mary.

So Ed had two very successful meetings back-to-back with Jay Jacobs and then Darrell and Mary Fontenot, one orchestrated by Debra Jo, the hair stylist.  She has a quaint salon on the outskirts of Phoenicia and she was the catalyst that created this deal.

Debra Jo beamed, “I just knew that these two men that I so love and respect would find a connection. I knew that they both cared about people and this community.  Darrell is a stand up man and I’ve always liked him.  He has always wanted to help his community and stepped up to help during the pandemic.”

Fontenot feels strongly that a conversation he had a year ago helped to connect the dots as “Debbie Jo, the hairdresser, played a large role in it.  She engineered it,” said Darrell.

Last year the Fontenot’s wanted to donate to the community and Debra Jo’s recommended the local fire companies and the Fontenot’s took that first step.  This year Ed mentioned Jay Jacob’s challenge to Debra Jo and she made the connection.  In their first conversation, Darrell could see the possibilities and wanted to know more.  He and Ed met first at Wellness Rx in Tannersville and then Ed met with both Mary and Darrell and again.  Handshakes were exchanged and the Jay Jacobs challenge was met, by the next donor Ed spoke with, all within ten days. 

After visiting the pharmacy in Tannersville where he met with Ullmann, Darrell took the tour, got his booster shot, absorbed the feeling of what had been created there and what could be offered in Phoenicia.  Darrell and Mary wanted to help their community and the seeds were sown.

The Fontenot’s are forward looking people when it comes to healthcare and wellness.  “I totally agreed with his vision along with Ed’s model of blending biotech, natural remedies and pharmaceuticals.  I’ve always believed in all of them and I’ve never understood why they should be separated.  I’ve always thought of it as a continuum, as we’ve believed in all of them intuitively and I’ve always been attracted to the vibe of the people I’ve met in those environments, said Darrell.

Mary shared on Wellness Rx expansion and her community feeling “It is such a great asset to downtown Phoenicia.  I thought it was interesting when I looked over the presentation Ed sent to us and I think it's a great concept and a great use of the old Riccadella’s Restaurant.  It will be nicely located, it will help the area and the other businesses that are opening up in Phoenicia, like the return of Sweet Sue’s, and the conversion of the old pharmacy into a sort of mall with many different vendors. It will help revive downtown Phoenicia which has happened twice within 20 years, right after 911 and now again as the pandemic is winding down.”

“Jay Jacobs, and his family, and the Fontenots, Darrell and Mary, are making a difference in our community for themselves and all of their neighbors.  We are grateful that they are taking our vision and turning it into a vehicle to help others with a pharmacy and wellness center with programs and services never before offered to any American community before and it begins with their commitment to us all.  Again we are appreciative and thankful for their love of community and their generosity,” said Ed Ullmann.


Community is a relationship and a commitment that needs tending to continue to improve.  Its building blocks are caring and trust and a willingness to reach those in need.  Phoenicia, the hamlet and Shandaken, the region are local areas folks are proud to be from and attract others (like Jay Jacobs, Debra Jo, Mike Riccadella and Ed Ullmann) who grew up here and made it better for all and those who chose to settled here (like Mary and Darrell Fontenot) who need a place to relax and get away from the big city and its stressful events and fell in love with all the riches available here.  

Ed Ullmann is betting that the communities he is talking to will gather together to strengthen their connection for primary healthcare options, and now they are proving he’s correct by putting their money where their hearts are located, right where they live.  

Appropriately, the kind, caring deal maker Debra Jo, gets the final word here. “So many businesses were folding. All of sudden we lost our pharmacy, it was devastating when the drug store closed. We needed to travel twenty (20) miles to go to the doctors.  We lost our long standing bank, then Sweet Sue’s restaurant closed down (but recently has reopened), our medical office (endocrinologist) closed down but now Brian Callahan, a physician’s assistant is back in Phoenicia. It was bad, but now I see Phoenicia going to really good places. It is going to come back the way it used to be, a little hub. I'm happy. I’ve always been crazy about Ed, he’s a magic man.”