City Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard is campaigning for a new way to spark neighborhood redevelopment.
Considering that Schenectady has little money and can’t afford to increase its paving budget, hire more police officers or rebuild more of the city’s crumbling infrastructure, Blanchard wants the city to use the one asset it has in abundance: vacant buildings.
She’s starting with the city’s vacant Bureau of Services office on Crane Street. The city is selling the building, but Blanchard wants to use it to get a new business in the neighborhood.
She wants to offer the building, rent-free, for up to two years while a business gets started. Then the business owner would buy the building or begin paying rent.
The city would have the maintain the building.
“But it wouldn’t be a huge cost,” Blanchard said, adding, “I mean, what are we going to get for that building if we sell it? I think it could be more valuable to us if we kept it.”
Metroplex Development Chairman Ray Gillen, the city’s economic development guru, said other cities have used free-rent programs to build business districts.
“Many economic development groups do it this way,” he said.
Metroplex has instead focused on getting buildings back onto the tax roll. If the city owns the building, the renter doesn’t pay property taxes.
“Our approach has been to privatize it, put it on the tax roll,” Gillen said. “But I sometimes think maybe we should have kept the movie theater, collected rent on it.”
He warned that the council must be selective if it chooses to offer buildings to entrepreneurs.
“It depends on the type of business,” he said, explaining that the business must draw in customers. Offices generally don’t bring people to the business district, and without increased foot traffic, the rest of the district won’t benefit from the new business.
“The more foot traffic you have through a district, the better it is,” Gillen said.
Councilman Thomas Della Sala said at a recent council meeting that he was willing to consider the idea, but Councilwoman Denise Brucker objected, saying the city shouldn’t become a landlord. It’s not clear whether Blanchard has enough votes to start the program.
Blanchard is undeterred.
The city is already landlord of many vacant buildings, she said.
“I think we should open it up and see what we get,” she said. “I think it could help. Who knows who would apply? If we offered free rent for two years, that would allow someone to get a good head start.”
She wants someone with a strong business plan.
“Clearly that business district needs revitalization. If we could get a pioneer in there, maybe we could spark something,” she said. “I think Crane Street needs more than we’re giving it.”
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