Foss: Do cities have a future?

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Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy believes Schenectady will bounce back from its COVID-related doldrums. 

“We’re going to come back,” McCarthy said last week during a meeting of the city task force charged with figuring out how to spend $10 million in state funds aimed at boosting downtown revitalization. “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.” 

At a time when the vicious combination of a pandemic and a collapsed economy have brought American cities to their knees, this qualifies as a bold statement. 

Recent news reports suggest that Americans have started moving away from cities, exchanging the hustle and bustle of urban centers for the relative quiet of suburbs and rural towns. 

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This process was already underway when COVID hit, and it has only accelerated since then. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed concern about the number of people fleeing New York City, saying, “We used to talk about the threat of people leaving the city. I’m more focused on getting people to come back to the city now.”

How these trends play out in small upstate cities like Albany, Schenectady and Troy remains to be seen, but we should be prepared for turbulence, uncertainty and struggle. 

Unemployment is a ghastly 11.7 percent, the Electric City faces a $12 million budget shortfall and big employers such as Proctors and Rivers Casino are still closed. As we head into fall, it’s clear that life isn’t going to return to normal anytime soon, which spells trouble for businesses, families and civic life in general.  

This doesn’t mean there’s no hope, or that McCarthy is wrong to suggest Schenectady has a bright future. 

I share the mayor’s belief that his city, and others like it, will recover from this grim period, and maybe even thrive. 

I’ve long believed that small cities have a lot to offer. 

In a post-pandemic world, they’re ripe for resurgence, as the same forces pushing people out of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles propel them toward places where the cost of living is cheaper, the housing is affordable, the neighborhoods are attractive and the downtowns are vibrant. 

A recent report from the think tank the Brookings Institution observed that, “As the urban population disperses, smaller metropolitan areas, suburban counties and populations residing outside of metropolitan areas are seeing more modest growth declines and even additional population gains.” 

If Schenectady isn’t a smaller metropolitan area, I don’t know what is. 

The Capital Region’s three cities have their faults — high taxes, blight, crumbling infrastructure, poverty — but I’ve always found living here quite manageable. 

You don’t have to be a millionaire to buy a house, or live with roommates forever because the rent is so darn high. In normal times, there’s plenty of entertainment, much of it reasonably priced. Even after living here for almost two decades, I’m still discovering new places to go and new things to do. 

My prediction is that COVID-19 and the recession will dramatically reshape certain aspects of our lives, but not others. 

Those hoping for more retail in downtown Schenectady will likely be disappointed. 

One consequence of the pandemic is that people are shopping online more than ever before, and the drop in downtown foot traffic means fewer people are spending money at downtown businesses. The worst case scenario is an increase in empty storefronts, as businesses that are unable to adjust close up permanently. 

With large events canceled for the foreseeable future, the music and arts events that draw people downtown aren’t happening, and won’t be for some time. That means downtowns are quieter and emptier, with far fewer options for visitors and residents alike. 

The panel tasked with spending the $10 million in downtown revitalization funds appeared to scrap a proposal, submitted by Proctors and the city, for $550,000 to strengthen outdoor event programming at Gateway Plaza and Mohawk Harbor. 

“The timing is off given the COVID thing,” Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen remarked at the meeting. “I think putting this one forward is a mistake given the conditions we’re currently operating in.” 

Gillen is right — conditions have changed. 


That means the panel’s priorities need to change, too. 

One thing the panel ought to consider is using some of its downtown revitalization funds to help existing businesses retool — to move operations outdoors, where coronavirus is less likely to spread, and develop new ways of doing things in a world where social distancing is the norm.

Minimizing the economic damage from the pandemic on local businesses would be a great use of downtown revitalization funds. 

Some have wondered whether cities will ever be able to recover from the damage caused by COVID-19. 

I’m not one of those people. 

I believe that cities are resilient and adaptable, and that while times might be tough, the future is as strong as we make it.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

 

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