Ray Gillen is Schenectady’s dealmaker, serving as the county’s commissioner of economic development and planning and chairman of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority.
Gillen, 57, who lives in the city, started his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked with a coalition of congressmen from the Northeast and Midwest on economic development policy and education.
He later took a job in Albany as director of industry development for Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm.
In 2004 he was wooed by then-Schenectady County Legislature Chairwoman Susan Savage and then-mayor Brian Stratton to spearhead the county’s unified economic development team.
Gillen joked that he went backward in his career — from the White House to the state Capitol to Schenectady County. But he said the local job is both challenging and rewarding.
Q: Why did you decide to work for Schenectady County?
A: The county’s leadership changed dramatically in 2004. A new majority came onto the county Legislature and Brian Stratton became mayor. The idea was to consolidate the economic development groups in Schenectady. There were dozens at the time, and it was terribly ineffective. The idea was to set up a professional, nonpolitical, independent and coordinated economic development effort that was lacking in Schenectady. They created my position to consolidate economic development functions and set up one-stop shopping.
Q: What convinced you to shift from the state to the county?
A: Savage and Stratton relentlessly pursued me to come over here. She was tenacious. I was very happy with the state and loved what I did there. The state even countered to try to keep me. At first I turned them down several times. They basically said, ‘You’re here. You’re from Schenectady and you grew up here. You should do this if you really care about your community.’
Q: Is General Electric still the biggest player in Schenectady in 2016?
A: GE has added about 1,000 positions in downtown since we started working with them in 2004, plus hundreds more in Niskayuna. Their headquarters for GE Power is here and Global Research is here. They have been aggressively investing in Schenectady and play a huge role in their volunteer presence. Prior to 2004, there was sometimes a combative relationship, but those days are all in the past. It’s a very positive relationship now. We value and are proud of that relationship.
Q: What type of synergies do you see with the future Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor?
A: You have Lottery Rewards that came here and we have the New York Lottery and Capital District Off-Track Betting Corp. headquarters here. There may be more gaming opportunities or software connections. The casino itself is attracting a lot of interest from folks who understand that there will be hotels and residential on site and the waterfront with the marina. That will increase the attractiveness of real estate.
Q: What will the new train station mean for Schenectady?
A: The current station is just completely unacceptable. It’s a very bad image for students and business travelers who come here and for residents who use the station. It’s in a great location to create another linkage from the Proctors block to lower State Street through the Stockade. The parking lots will get improved and expanded as a result of the project. We also are starting to aggressively pursue meetings and conferences and using our walkable downtown and link to the casino.
Q: Some people have a negative view of the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements. Why are they necessary?
A: We’re not doing PILOTs for easy-to-do greenfield sites in suburban areas. We’re taking vacant, sometimes derelict, properties and government-owned properties and they’re now paying with a great return on investment because they’re creating jobs and providing recurring revenue. Now folks are paying basically the market rate tax levels that make us competitive. We’re transitioning properties onto the tax rolls and getting new investments done. Everybody offers these things. We have to be competitive.
Q: What is the outlook for more retail in Schenectady?
A: We always said that non-food retail is the toughest get in downtown. We’ve had great success with arts and entertainment and office and technology and restaurants. As we build residential units we’re creating an environment and spaces for retailers. Mohawk Harbor will have some great spaces for retail. We’re creating some additional opportunities with Electric City apartments (at the corner of State Street and Erie Boulevard) and we hope retail will fill in at ViaPort Rotterdam (formerly Rotterdam Square Mall). I think we’re creating an atmosphere where we’re attractive for retail of all sizes.
Q: Is there a push to get more grocery stores in Schenectady?
A: There are a lot of grocery options in the county. In the city you have Price Chopper on Eastern Parkway, Price Rite in Crosstown Plaza and a Walmart Neighborhood Market at Mansion Square in Niskayuna, which is right by the city line. We’re fortunate to have those. The issue in the inner city is the same issue we have in downtown. They want to see other development occur and other investment occur to show that it’s a good location. We have some of that happening now. One of the problems is there are fewer retailers doing smaller groceries and we don’t have the sites in the city for larger stores.
Q: How can Schenectady be more of a walkable city?
A: We think we have a walkable city now. We think some improvements on lower Union Street and on lower State Street and on Erie Boulevard, plus the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, are very significant. We’re looking at other improvements in front of City Hall to make connections between the Proctors block and lower Union. We would like a marked trail in the downtown, like a loop people can use for exercise. We’re also looking at Nott Terrace improvements this year and connecting the DoubleTree hotel and miSci to downtown.
Q: What is your favorite event of the year in Schenectady?
A: I like The Gazette Holiday Parade. I usually come down and work the parking lot and help out. It’s a fun night. If one was going to stick out over the others, I’d say I enjoy that. The Holiday Parade was the only night of the year that downtown was busy before redevelopment. We want something going on all the time. It’s moved to a sustainable, ongoing series of events.
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.