Decision-makers begin to winnow down Schenectady’s $10M grant wishlist

Clock again ticking for how to spend state funds

SCHENECTADY — Members of a panel tasked with how to allocate $10 million in state grant funds have started the process of winnowing down a list of dozens of projects for approval this fall.

Among the Schenectady DRI projects that generated the most discussion in a virtual meeting on Thursday night was a proposal by developers to build a mixed-use apartment building and parking structure on Lower State Street.

Highbridge Prime Development wants to raze two of their buildings between Electric City and the emerging Mill Artisan District and build a five-story mixed-use building with 17 apartments and nearly 300 parking spaces on the footprint.

But LPC members balked at their request for $3 million as part of the $8.2 million effort, and asked if it could be lowered. 

Schenectady County Metroplex Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said he couldn’t get Highbridge, who also developed Electric City, to budge. 

Capital Region Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Eagan said parking is needed in the area, but wondered if the project was worth $3 million of the DRI grant. 

“There’s never a set number in terms of a match because every project is different,” said Steve Kearney, a project manager with Stantec, the Boston-based consultants guiding the effort. 

Dave Buicko, president and CEO of the Galesi Group, said he has been able to build parking spaces for cheaper, and other projects were most cost-effective.

“I think we get more bang for the buck with other projects,” Buicko said.

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

LPC members broadly agreed that lighting concepts along bridges and other visible landmarks, including the First United Methodist Church on State Street, were worth an ongoing look, as well as signage to direct people to attractions downtown and at Mohawk Harbor.

Use of area bike trails has been through the roof amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gillen said, and bicyclists have asked about wayfinding materials.

Members of the LPC last met in mid-February, and consultants have since tasked them with reviewing project profiles that rank proposed projects by criteria, including feasibility, potential impact and public support.

Also appearing to make the cut for future consideration are concepts for driving pedestrian traffic from downtown through Little Italy and to Mohawk Harbor through a tunnel, trails and reopening a closed stretch of North Jay Street.

Lighting concepts and public art installations, including a statue of George Westinghouse, also appeared to receive a positive reception.

Creating funky and buzzworthy places with art, said Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation Executive Director Jim Salengo, “is a good part of embracing all good things happening downtown.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the funds last November as part of a statewide initiative to bolster downtowns in an effort to attract investment and young people.

But the country has since been battered by the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, dramatically altering the landscape against which panelists have to make their decisions.

Schenectady County is grappling with a 11.7-percent unemployment rate.

Proctors, Rivers Casino & Resort and Bowtie Cinemas remain closed. The future of universities remains uncertain, downtown hotels continue to grapple with reduced capacity and businesses are contending with reduced foot traffic as many downtown office workers continue to work from home, Kearney said.

Absent a federal relief package, further economic damage is inevitable.

“There are going to be layoffs coming unless federal funding is coming,” Kearney said.

As a result, language in Schenectady DRI’s vision statement was updated to reflect state funds will help the city rebound, rebuild and facilitate an “inclusive recovery.”

(Proctors CEO Philip Morris said panelists should also work the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement into their vision statement, noting the societal shift.)

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.

The state Department of State, which is overseeing the effort, acknowledged the timeline for disbursing the funds may be delayed amid the uncertain financial climate. 

As a result, some proposals have hit the skids

Proctors joined the city in asking for $550,000 as part of an $850,000 effort to strengthen outdoor events programming and infrastructure downtown, Gateway Plaza and at Mohawk Harbor.

“The timing is off given the COVID thing,” Gillen said. “I think putting this one forward is mistaken given the conditions we’re currently operating in.”

The Electric City Food Co-Op is seeking $1,500,000 for a $4,200,000 effort to open a downtown grocery store.

But prospects for funding appear challenging because the fledgling co-op does not have a location, a key criteria for securing the funding, said Dave Ashton, an official with the state Department of State.

“In terms of the state evaluating this project, it would have some challenges because it would not be viewed as ready,” Ashton said.

Panelists disagreed on whether it should be removed from consideration.

Jay Street Pub owner Mitch Ramsey called the request “absurdly high,” while Perreca’s owner Maria Papa said it remains a “worthy” project for consideration.

“I would not like to see it thrown out at this point,” Papa said. “I think it deserves more exploration … it just seems so crucial to the bigger picture.”

Consultants also briefly sailed through a residential apartment study completed in late-February that concluded 950 households have the potential to move to downtown every year.

“This shows a real bright spot for Schenectady,” Kearney said.

It’s unclear what impact COVID has had on the downtown housing market, but anecdotally, Gillen said 54 units at the still-unfinished Mill Artisan District have been leased.

As for housing downtown, Gillen said, “Most apartments are fully occupied and have a waiting list.”

Panelists also debated whether they should boost and expand eligibility for funding for facade improvements along Lower State Street to the entire DRI footprint, which stretches from downtown to Little Italy and along Erie Boulevard to Mohawk Harbor, but did not reach a consensus.

Wayfinding materials to guide visitors to destinations was scrapped because the county will take the lead on those efforts, Gillen said.

Panelists also discussed whether funds should be invested into sprucing up a neglected alley connecting lower State Street and Liberty Street and appeared to place that effort on hold.

City Mayor Gary McCarthy said it’s not a matter of if the city bounces back from its COVID-induced slump, but when. 

“We’re going to come back,” McCarthy said. “Whether it’s January or June, we need to be prepared to rebound and take advantage of it and build excitement as we move forward.”

The next public meeting is scheduled for Aug. 13, while the LPC will meet for the final time on Aug. 27.

Panelists must submit a draft plan to the state by Sept. 11.

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