Longtime Schenectady economic leader dies

Robertson remembered as visionary and tough guy
George Robertson discusses economic development in Schenectady in 1997.
George Robertson discusses economic development in Schenectady in 1997.

SCHENECTADY — Longtime Schenectady economic development official George Robertson died Saturday morning after a battle with cancer. 

Robertson died in a hospital in Warsaw, Indiana, where he had been living with his wife, Priya Robertson. 

Former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski said he went to see his old confidant Robertson in September, when the battle with cancer had diminished his weight to 132 pounds.

“He did not go down easily. He was a fighter right to the end,” Jurczynski said. 

Robertson, a Republican, came to Schenectady in the mid-1980s, brought in by Mayor Karen Johnson, a Democrat, to serve as president of the Schenectady Economic Development Corp. One of Robertson’s roles was being the point of contact with General Electric. In 1990 he and his staff from SEDC performed the administrative functions for the newly created Schenectady 2000. 

Working with former Schenectady County Legislature Chairman Bob Farley, Jurczynski and the leadership of Schenectady
2000 and other local leaders, Robertson helped to lay the groundwork for the creation of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, authorized by Gov. George Pataki.

“Without George Robertson, Metroplex would have never happened,” Jurczynski said. 

Bob Farley praised Robertson’s contributions to Schenectady.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 23-March 1, 2019

“George was the most wonderful of men,” Farley said. “A visionary who always placed others before himself.  Driven, hard working, creative, and a master at bringing talented people together, everything he did was accomplishment based and a service to others.  His love for his family, his community, and the countless people he called his friends, touched all our lives.  He was simply a giant, and all of us who worked with him, stood upon his shoulders. When few people did, George believed in Schenectady.  He believed in its promise, its people and in its future.” 

Perhaps ironically, the creation of Metroplex served as one of the reasons for Robertson’s ultimate removal from power in 2006, as the Democratic Party won control of the city and the county’s economic development entities, of which there had been a whopping 29 as late as 1998. Consolidation of those entites and party differences led to the end of Robertson’s 20-year tenure as the city’s top economic development official.

Robertson was interviewed for a Daily Gazette article published on Oct. 21 profiling the success of Ray Gillen, Schenectady County’s commissioner of economic development and planning and chairman of the Schenectady County Metroplex. He said cooperation is essential for good economic development. 

“To make a community develop you have to have one of two things,” he said: A single primary agency or very good collaboration among multiple agencies.

“Either model works, but you have to have one or the other. … If you have neither, you have trouble.” 

Jurczynski said when Robertson first arrived on the scene he was considered “apolitical,” although he had been a Republican political operative in his past. Jurczynski said he never really believed some of Robertson’s stories of how effective he had been at organizing political campaigns prior to his days in Schenectady, but during the 1999 mayoral campaign he got a chance to see him in action. 

Jurczynski said Schenectady Democrats made a key error in making it known that they would eliminate Robertson’s position if they were able to defeat him, which prompted Robertson to spring into action to lead his re-election campaign. 

“He was kind of running the campaign. He started doing all of the things that he used to talk about quietly, or off the radar, about what he had done years earlier,” he said. “In 1999, I won re-election. I had one line, [current mayor Gary McCarthy] had five lines, and I beat him by 2,000 votes, which anybody who knows Schenectady politics knows that that’s a landslide.”

Jurczynski said Robertson revealed his skill at politics to him when in mid-November of 1999 Robertson called him to tell him his political future. 

“He told me ‘I’ve been reviewing our polling data, and I’ve got good news and bad news.’ I said ‘what’s that?’ He said ‘the seniors in this town absolutely love you, you’ve got them across party lines 80 to 20.’ He said the bad news is ‘after that your numbers drop dramatically. The way I look at it, you’ve got maybe one, maybe two good elections left in you,'” Jurczynski said. 

Jurczynski said Robertson’s prediction was true, and when he attempted to run for the Schenectady County Legislature years later he was easily defeated.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 23-March 1, 2019

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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