SCHENECTADY — The year has been rough for downtown Schenectady, where restaurants and bars have been battered by stop-and-go restrictions and Proctors remains shuttered.
But even amid the pandemic, the city passed a major hurdle on how to spend $10 million in state grant funds awarded last fall as part of the Schenectady Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), the effort designed to spur broader economic investment between downtown and Mohawk Harbor.
The group of local panelists tasked with vetting and selecting projects sent its wish list to the state in September.
With the year coming to an end, and the state facing an $8.7 billion projected budget shortfall, an announcement on which projects, if any, will be greenlit by the state remains forthcoming.
“We are working to review the submitted plan which includes the recommended projects,” said Erin McCarthy, a spokesperson for the state Department of State. “Once DRI awards are announced, the Strategic Investment Plan will be published on the state’s DRI website.”
What also remains unknown is how the local panelists tasked with selecting the recipients voted — including if insiders recused themselves from projects that would benefit them.
Despite the simplicity of the voting documents, which panelists were required to submit electronically by Sept. 3, the state is stalling on their release.
The Daily Gazette submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the state Department of State on Nov. 18 seeking the ballots and forms flagging potential conflicts of interest.
But the state agency on Dec. 17 requested more time and said they were “still conducting a diligent search for responsive records,” estimating they would complete the request by Feb. 25, 2021.
McCarthy didn’t directly answer when asked why it would take the state three months to provide electronic ballots, all of which were submitted within the same general timeframe.
“The Department of State is currently preparing and reviewing responsive documents for your FOIL request,” McCarthy said.
Government watchdogs like the Empire Center, a fiscally-conservative think tank, say dragging out the release of public information is a “major weakness” in the state’s transparency law, which is designed to empower journalists and citizens to hold government officials accountable.
“Instead, it’s being used as a permission slip to keep people in the dark,” Ken Girardin, a fellow with the Empire Center, said. “No one should have to hire a lawyer and go to court to view a public record, but when government officials are concealing things, that’s your only recourse.”
Reinvent Albany similarly blasted the opacity and said the state should proactively be releasing the ballots and recusal forms, particularly when the DRI is ostensibly good news for the community — and a major state initiative.
“That consensus should not be kept secret,” said John Kaehny, executive director.
The panel of 16 local decision-makers, dubbed the Local Planning Committee (LPC), was tasked with reviewing, vetting and selecting a list of potential funding recipients.
With the help of public feedback solicited through a series of meetings and suggestions by state-tapped consultants, the LPC whittled a list of dozens of contenders down to 18 projects during a months-long process.
The panel consists of a prominent roster of who’s who in the city’s political, business and educational spheres, as well as community representatives.
That includes high-ranking officials from Proctors, Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, Union College, Rivers Casino & Resort and the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation.
Serving as co-chairs of the now-wrapped process were David Buicko, president and CEO of the Galesi Group, the developer behind Rivers Casino and Mohawk Harbor, and city Mayor Gary McCarthy.
“I would assume they’d make those ballots available when the determination is made available for the actual awards,” McCarthy said.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said the process has been transparent.
“Public participation was key to the entire Schenectady DRI process,” Gillen said. “My understanding is that there was unanimous support from the DRI panel for the final list of projects. The final decision is up to the state as this is their funding and their process.”
Panelists were not required to submit ethical disclosure forms, but were reminded of their responsibility to adhere to a code of conduct ahead of meetings, and were instructed to flag potential conflicts during publicly-open workshops and recuse themselves from conversations regarding their own projects.
Just weeks before COVID-19 led to shutdowns in March, the group came under scrutiny for proposing a fresh batch of projects that would have benefited their own institutions, including screening rooms at Proctors and deep investments in entertainment infrastructure downtown and at Mohawk Harbor.
Those last-minute requests resulted in arched eyebrows from Reinvent Albany, who said the mere appearance of conflicts invites public skepticism.
Most of those were zapped amid the pandemic, and the final portfolio contains a fairly unglamorous blend of urban engineering projects sponsored by the city — including enhanced streetlighting concepts, traffic improvements around City Hall and the reopening of a tunnel to Mohawk Harbor — as well as $287,000 carved out for public art projects.
But the Daily Gazette’s past examination of those now-scuttled requests is even more reason for the state to be transparent, according to Reinvent Albany.
“They’ve been put on notice that they’re already under scrutiny and should inform the public on how these decisions are being made,” Kaehny said. “That consensus should not be kept secret. They’re designing streetlights, not designing missiles for the Pentagon or something.”
Roughly half of the funds contained in the final request, or $5.75 million, would be steered to two developers for mixed-use development projects.
Highbridge Prime Development wants $3 million to raze two buildings between its Electric City Apartments and the Mill Artisan District on lower State Street and build a five-story mixed-use building with 17 apartments and nearly 300 parking spaces, an $8.2 million effort.
Blocks away, Redburn Development Partners is seeking $2.75 million for a project to purchase the Bank of America building and redevelop three underused blocks of Clinton Street, ultimately transforming the side street into an economic corridor.
And Urban Initiatives Group LLC is seeking $300,000 for a $680,000 effort to repurpose structures along Erie Boulevard into four urban art studios, a retail gallery, event space and two maker spaces.
McCarthy, the city mayor, declined on Wednesday to discuss specific projects and their ability to galvanize broader development, but previously said the awards will be more important than ever in a post-COVID landscape to help downtown rebound economically.