Capital Region

DRI: Upstate cities have had varied experiences with their Downtown Revitalization Initiative awards

Downtown Gloversville on a chilly Valentine’s Day morning.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Downtown Gloversville on a chilly Valentine’s Day morning.

The five rounds of funding through the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to downtowns across the state since 2016.

As Gloversville embarks on its DRI process, here’s a look at how things have gone in nearby cities that were recipients in previous rounds of the coveted $10 million economic development prize.

AMSTERDAM

Closest geographically is Amsterdam, which was chosen as the Mohawk Valley recipient in DRI Round 3, in 2018.

Like Gloversville, it’s a city that hasn’t fully recovered from the loss of its signature industry decades ago. Amsterdam’s efforts to revitalize its downtown are complicated by the scars of Urban Renewal and the segmentation of highway realignments. 

But it enjoys the benefit of interstate highway access and is seeing renewed activity in some of the hulking old industrial buildings.

“Besides the 10 million, which was great, it really … has done its job in getting developers interested in downtown Amsterdam,” said Amanda Bearcroft, the city’s director of community and economic development.

This is a main goal of DRI: attracting investment and building momentum toward a cleaner, newer, busier downtown. DRI alone won’t accomplish that — two projects or even one project can cost $10 million or more. Further public and private investment is critical.

The Veedersburg Apartments under construction on East Main Street is one such example. It is not DRI-funded and is not even in the DRI zone, but the developer was spurred by the DRI award to pursue the 62-unit project, Bearcroft said. “We spent maybe a year looking for the right site for them.”

More from our look Sunday at Downtown Revitalization Initiatives and Gloversville:

This is another intended effect of DRI, she said: extending the work beyond downtown. “We need to start initiating other larger-scale projects in other neighborhoods,” Bearcroft said.

The pandemic, with its shutdowns, labor shortages and supply shortages, pushed completion timetables back but not off track, she said. And some of the highway reconfiguration that cut the downtown into segments difficult to navigate on foot will now be undone.

Challenges remain. The city’s planning documents are outdated and crumbling remains of the industrial past still dot the city streets, including a huge East End factory complex that is partially collapsed. There’s no money to seize and demolish it, but various state and federal funding streams provide at least the hope that the city can get assistance for what Bearcroft — also the executive director of the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency — calls a top priority.

One of the marquee DRI projects in Amsterdam, renovation of the historic Key Bank Building into commercial space and apartments, is far along and heading toward completion, said Joe Tesiero, managing partner of Cranesville Properties, the owner.

Cranesville got $1 million from DRI toward a project that originally was budgeted at $2.4 million but has since seen costs jump.

“We’re laying tile on the upper floors now,” Tesiero said earlier this month.

The appliances and kitchen cabinets have been delivered, the carpet is on order, but the countertops are delayed. Most everything is more expensive to buy and less prompt to be delivered, he reflected.

But the 24 apartments are just months away from completion and potential occupancy. He’s in discussion with a possible tenant interested in the commercial space on the bottom two floors of the eight-story building as a restaurant and small banquet facility.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Amsterdam,” Tesiero said of the DRI initiative.

He says his project will outlive him, providing quality housing downtown for decades to come.

SCHENECTADY

Schenectady was a Round 4 DRI recipient in 2019, but saw its award frozen for a year as the state wrestled with its finances in 2020. There was no Round 5 in 2020 — that was pushed back to 2021, when state coffers were flush with federal assistance. 

Also in 2021, the state finally sent the city of Schenectady a list of green-lighted projects to support with its $10 million.

Ray Gillen, director of planning and economic development for the county and DRI czar for the city, said even with the delay, the award is accomplishing the program’s goals: Attracting unrelated development downtown.

In some cases, the DRI-approved projects themselves became financially doable because of the DRI award.

“There’s a number of large development deals that this made possible,” he said.

The $2.5 million award to a single developer working on three major downtown projects leverages a combined budget estimated at $38.7 million, for example.

More than half of the awards aren’t actually for buildings, they are for aesthetics and the functionality of downtown as a walkable place. Another award is $600,000 to be handed out in dribs and drabs to improve the look of lower State Street as development continues there.

“We’re excited about the lower State facade fund, which is really going to help us continue the momentum there,” Gillen said.

First out of the gate in Schenectady will be an ugly-duckling office building across from City Hall. Spraragen Partners was promised $425,000 toward a $2.4 million transformation into a glass-walled showpiece that is nearing completion.

More from our look Sunday at Downtown Revitalization Initiatives and Gloversville:

“The DRI was extremely important for our project to make it over the finish line,” Brooke Spraragen said. “National Grid supported us on this, too.”

Part of the downstairs will host a restaurant, the rest is being actively marketed. And the upstairs is already occupied — Urban Co-Works moved in last autumn.

“They’re doing gangbusters in this location,” Spraragen said.

ROME

Some would say Rome has no downtown to revitalize.

The city was an enthusiastic practitioner of Urban Renewal, flattening almost every structure over several dozen acres in the course of two decades. 

It replaced them with bland concrete buildings, parking lots, public garages and a re-creation of the Colonial-era Fort Stanwix.

The city’s circa-1928 movie theater was one of the few survivors, and it is now the anchor of an Arts District that is the focus of the DRI award Rome won in Round 2, in 2017. At $2.5 million, The Capitol is also the largest single grant recipient.

“I tell people that when we complete that we will have reversed Urban Renewal,” Mayor Jacqueline Izzo said.

Nearby, a 64-unit loft complex is being built, new restaurants have opened, a co-working space has set up shop and an arts incubator is in operation.

Down Erie Boulevard, one of the derelict old wire mills that helped give Rome its nickname — The Copper City — has been replaced by a light manufacturing complex. On a prominent corner, the city demolished a multilevel concrete garage built during Urban Renewal. If the Fort Stanwix National Monument can get back to its pre-pandemic operations, it will bring 100,000 visitors a year to the edge of the Arts District.

Not all of these developments are DRI-related, but they all contribute to the goal of a downtown — however small — that people will want to live in or go out of their way to visit, Izzo said.

And every DRI award recipient was required to bring equity of their own to the table, as the city set a goal of $20 million to $25 million total spending for the projects getting a piece of the $10 million pie.

“The DRI has been a tremendous benefit to us,” Izzo said.

GLENS FALLS

Glens Falls was one of the first-round DRI recipients back in 2016.

Implementing it has been one challenge after another, said Jeff Flagg, the city’s economic development director:

It was a new program at the time, and state agencies were operating without experience or a playbook as they tried to assist recipient municipalities. The city has gone through two mayoral administration changes since 2016. COVID delayed or halted progress in some cases. Ed Bartholomew, the indefatigable president of the Warren County Economic Development Corporation, died mid-process. Construction costs are far more now than originally was envisioned.

These are all minor setbacks but in total they’ve slowed progress, Flagg said.

Most of the city’s DRI effort has been focused on rehabilitating the South Street area and creating a market district that attracts investment and activity. Most of the city’s DRI projects are there, or near there, or feed traffic to that area.

Preparatory demolition has been performed and an architect has been commissioned for the centerpiece of the district, a building that will host a farmers market and serve many other purposes.

“I think we’re looking to make pretty good progress here in the next 12 to 18 months in terms of boots-on-the-ground construction,” Flagg said.

ONEONTA

Oneonta was another Round 1 recipient in 2016. 

Community Development Director Judy Pangman said the last of the city’s 45 projects will be completed later this year and in early 2023.

These include 41 building facades or signs; 30 new market-rate residential units above downtown storefronts; multiple studies for future projects; 64 new artists’ lofts targeted for low- and moderate-income people; “We’re Onta Something,” a new marketing brand for the city; design work for a new transit hub; and a COVID-19 recovery program to encourage alumni of the two local colleges to move back to Oneonta permanently.

“The impact of all of these DRI-funded projects has been truly transformational for the City of Oneonta,” Pangman said via email.

More from our look Sunday at Downtown Revitalization Initiatives and Gloversville:

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