Schenectady

Schenectady Downtown Revitalization Initiative meetings to resume after COVID-19 pause

Decision-makers for $10M grant face altered landscape
Downtown Schenectady
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Downtown Schenectady

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Five months is an eternity.

Instead of staring down a projected $12 million budget deficit, as it is now, Schenectady had a surplus and was eyeing how to spend $10 million in state economic development funds.

But the coronavirus pandemic upended the process in mid-March when the panel guiding Schenectady’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) was days away from nearing a final decision on which projects to fund.

The panel will meet virtually on Thursday at 6 p.m. for the first time since Feb. 20.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the award last November, and Schenectady was one of 10 localities to receive the funding statewide.

Roughly three-dozen proposals are being weighed by consultants and a panel of local decision-makers known as the Local Planning Committee, or LPC.

Among them are public art projects, lighting concepts, mixed-use buildings and a series of urban art studios.

Driving pedestrian traffic between downtown and Mohawk Harbor is a key element of the effort and the city has proposed a connector linking Little Italy to the waterfront complex, among a dozen other infrastructure projects.

The proposed Capital Region Aquatic Center and a 100,000-square-foot retail complex at Mohawk Harbor have also been flagged as possible recipients, as well as the Electric City Food Co-op, which also remains in a conceptual stage.

“Basically, we’ll review where we’ve come from,” said Schenectady County Metroplex Authority Chairman Ray Gillen, who serves on the LPC.

Several developers are also seeking partial funding for new apartment complexes, including Redburn Development Partners and Highbridge Prime Development, the developers behind the Electric City Apartments.

Panelists on Thursday will review a newly released residential market survey completed by consultants in March.

The group was supposed to meet on March 12 to begin to winnow the list down to $15 million in projects, but the meeting was postponed as shutdown orders began taking effect in New York.

“I think we’re on a pathway to get the final report to the state in a fall timeframe,” Gillen said.

At least one more public meeting is required before the plan is submitted to the state Department of State.

Community meetings held over the winter revealed the lighting concepts and public art were popular projects among those considered for funding.

Officials previously expected at least $128 million in outside funding will be leveraged through the state investment, which will be $9.7 million after consulting fees.

But the pandemic immediately evaporated millions in tax revenue for the city and attendees will now have to grapple with an dramatically altered economic landscape and weigh if projects considered high priorities before the pandemic should now be reconsidered.

For instance, a coalition of power-players — including Metroplex, Proctors, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Rivers Casino & Resort and Discover Schenectady — are collectively seeking nearly $1 million to bolster outdoor events programming and infrastructure, a priority that may now fade as large group gatherings are prohibited for the foreseeable future.

Proctors and Rivers Casino & Resort remain closed and employees furloughed. 

And even before the economic recession, retail studies drafted by Stantec, the consultants advising the DRI effort, and Dave Buicko, president and CEO of the Galesi Group, previously acknowledged the retail market can be challenging even in the pre-COVID landscape. 

Buicko and city Mayor Gary McCarthy serve as co-chairs of the Schenectady DRI, and neither returned phone calls seeking comment on Wednesday.

Another dangling question is if the funds will ultimately be made available considering the state’s grim financial outlook.

The state faces a $14 billion deficit in the current fiscal year, a number that may swell to $16 billion by next year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday.

Without federal aid, hospitals, schools and local governments will face 20-percent funding cuts, the governor said.

Cuomo, who serves as co-chair of the National Governors Association, is calling for $500 billion in aid to state governments over three years.

But the plan released by U.S. Senate Republicans this week falls far short of the mark, and “will allow municipalities and their states to use an existing $150 billion pot of funds — approved as part of the last coronavirus relief bill — in a more flexible manner,” the Washington Post reported.

Cuomo called the proposal “disappointing” but believes there’s “significant common ground” for an agreement that will help state and local governments.

The state Department of State said the completion of the Schenectady DRI project profiles and strategic investment plan are an “important step toward revitalization.”

But the timeline for actually disbursing the funds appears unsettled amid the financial climate.

“Presently, New York state is contending with a 14 percent decline in revenue, and in the absence of federal funding to offset this loss is reviewing all of its programs across the board,” said Erin McCarthy, a spokesperson for the state agency. “We will provide updates on what this all means for the implementation phase of the DRI as soon as possible.”

For information on how to join Thursday’s Schenectady DRI meeting, visit schenectadydri.com.

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