Tom Lawrence was sitting at home recently when Susan Savage’s “Little Miracle” ad appeared on his TV.
In the campaign ad, Savage, a Democrat running for the 44th District state Senate seat against incumbent Republican Hugh Farley, takes credit for revitalizing Schenectady through her leadership and by lowering taxes and creating jobs.
In interviews explaining her ad, Savage said she brought changes to the Metroplex Development Authority and brought “changes to this community.”
Savage became chairwoman of the Schenectady County Legislature in 2004, the date, according to the ad, that Schenectady’s “Little Miracle” began.
Savage deserves credit for some of the revitalization that has occurred in Schenectady County, but she cannot take responsibility for it all, said Lawrence.
Indeed, Schenectady is a better place than it was five years ago, said Neil Golub, president and CEO of the Golub Corp. and the longest-serving member of Metroplex’s board of directors. Metroplex, a state-created economic development agency funded by Schenectady County sales tax revenues, has helped attract more than $300 million in investment to the county, in the process expanding the county’s sales tax base and improving the look of the city’s downtown, once filled with shuttered, deteriorated buildings.
However, poverty and unemployment remain high in Schenectady County, according to the Rev. Phil Grigsby, director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
While Metroplex has created and retained more than 5,000 jobs, Schenectady County had fewer jobs in 2009 than it did in 2004 — 63,264 versus 64,255. Also, while the total full value tax rate in the county has remained relatively stable over the past decade, the city and several towns have seen their tax rates increase, the city’s almost doubling.
The county’s tax rate for municipalities, meanwhile, has declined, but county taxes represent a small portion of the total tax bill paid by residents.
Lawrence, who has lived in Schenectady for 30 years and owns Lennon’s Irish Shop on Jay Street, does not question that a revitalization has occurred in Schenectady but says it took the effort of more than one person to accomplish.
“How dare she take credit for the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of us who are here every day, making sure that the right things happen?” he wrote in a letter to the editor printed Sept. 23 in The Daily Gazette. Since Lawrence’s letter appeared, he said he has received feedback from people agreeing with him — that no one person was responsible for revitalizing Schenectady.
Golub, who was chairman of Schenectady 2000 — a citizens’ community action group and precursor to Metroplex — agreed that a team effort helped spark Schenectady’s revitalization.
“Schenectady 2000 got it started after 40 years of inappropriate legislative action by the city and the county, who did nothing as Schenectady was going down the tube,” Golub said. He has been on the Metroplex board since its launch in 1999, the only original board member still serving.
More than a decade ago, Schenectady 2000 proposed a $150 million plan to overhaul downtown, but it had no ability to raise the money. Enter Metroplex.
County Legislator Robert Farley, R-Glenville, son of Sen. Farley, proposed Metroplex’s creation, and the state Legislature, after making significant changes, authorized it.
Said Golub, “In my opinion, nothing would have happened in Schenectady if we had not gotten the Metroplex Development Authority and the funding mechanism functioning.”
Farley’s initial Metroplex legislation called for a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax to fund Metroplex’s operations and for a board of 25 members appointed by the state Legislature. Savage lobbied for a half-percent sales tax increase and a seven-member board appointed by the county Legislature. The final structure includes the half-percent sales tax hike for revenue and an 11-member board appointed by the county Legislature, the City Council and town boards. The half-percent generates approximately $8 million per year for Metroplex; the authority also has the ability to bond up to $75 million. A portion of this sales tax, totaling $3.1 million, goes to the towns and villages in the county annually, which they use to stabilize local taxes.
Savage said the first five years of Metroplex were an “absolute boondoggle. During those first years, several taxpayer-funded projects were announced to great fanfare but not completed. It drained and squandered $8 million per year with little to show for success.”
When she became county Legislature chairwoman in 2004, Savage said, she hired Ray Gillen as commissioner of economic development and planning (a newly created position) and offered him the chairmanship of Metroplex, a non-paying job.
“When I became chair of the Legislature, my primary goal was to make large changes in economic development. The previous Metroplex chair came to the Legislature and when he was asked what the role of county government should be in economic development, he said it was to be a cheerleader. We did not want to be a cheerleader. We wanted to be a leader,” Savage said.
After Gillen’s appointment, Savage directed him to streamline the economic development process in the county and to focus on job creation.
“Metroplex was up and running and faltering. I said if I did not fix the problem I would be blamed for the problem. We created a strong economic development entity to focus on the whole county,” she said.
Savage also said she repaired broken relationships with local businesses.
“I made a top priority to rebuild relationships with business that had one or both feet out the door, like GE. GE and the community were nearly at war,” she said.
Some credit, not all
Golub said the early years of Metroplex were spent defining its role and developing policies and procedures — it was, after all, an entirely new entity in the state.
“It took time to figure out what we were supposed to do, how to do it. We put a lot of effort to focus on direction,” he said.
Golub said “the guy the county Legislature put into the position as chairman was a nice guy, but he was inept. He was in way over his head. They finally brought in the right guy, and that is Ray Gillen,” he said.
John Manning, Gillen’s predecessor, was not available for comment.
Golub, a Republican, said Savage deserves credit for what she has done, securing the GE battery plant and the GE renewable energy headquarters for Schenectady, “but she has not done it alone.” He also said Savage has nothing to do with Metroplex’s operations.
“She can’t do that, not by law,” he said. “She does not control it, she does not lead it. That has to be clear.”
Golub said Metroplex is nonpartisan: “The Metroplex board makes its own decisions, votes on its budget and votes on projects.”
He also said the state legislation that created Metroplex “excludes the county Legislature because they had failed so miserably to promote economic development.”
Savage said Gillen “works for me and reports to me. The reason I hired Ray was to bring that focus on economic development. I pride myself in hiring smart people. I hold people accountable. If he did not succeed, he would have been replaced by someone else.”
Gillen said he has a 30-year record of working in economic development in a nonpartisan effort.
“The issue is we have to work with elected officials. They are a critical part of the team,” he said.
He called Savage the chief elected officer in the county, and by default, he works with her on projects affecting the county.
Sen. Farley called presumptuous Savage’s statement that Metroplex was a boondoggle.
“I think it has been a success from the start, but that is up to the [Metroplex] board to defend itself.”
Farley also said he had a role in helping to revitalize Schenectady. He brought in several state agencies to downtown Schenectady, part of efforts by former Gov. George Pataki to relocate state facilities outside of Albany to boost economic development. Farley cited working with state and local officials to bring in the regional headquarters of the Department of Transportation, the state Commission on Quality Care and the state Lottery and helping to establish the Zone 5 Police Academy in Schenectady. He also obtained state grants to help Proctors and rebuild State Street.
The Schenectady County Legislature, under Savage, also contributed funds to Proctors’ rehabilitation and helped Proctors obtain the former Carl Co. building. The rehabilitation of Proctors, which totaled more than $50 million, is considered the key reason downtown Schenectady has bounced back. That effort was started by citizen volunteers.
Golub added that the pre-Gillen Metroplex played an important role in keeping MVP in the city and provided Proctors with $20 million, starting in 2003, toward its rehabilitation.
Savage also takes credit for creating 3,500 jobs in Schenectady County. A review of documentation provided by Metroplex, which tracks job creation, shows the number is closer to 5,000. Savage stops at 3,500 because she cannot take credit for the Golub Corp. headquarters project and its 800 jobs or for the movie theater, the Department of Transportation project or several other projects, Golub said.
James Ross, a labor analyst for the state Department of Labor, said jobs are always being created and destroyed, part of the natural cycle of business. Also, the recession hurt jobs.
Ross said of Metroplex, “Yes, it did create the jobs, but there will be jobs lost. If it didn’t do that, the net loss could have been more. You need some kind of economic development because you will always lose jobs.”
SICM’s Grigsby said the turnaround in Schenectady has been dramatic. “Metroplex has done an able job to increase the tax base and activity in the community. Alas, there is a parallel community that is not part of the system, those with opportunities and those with less opportunities,” he said.
He said the critical points of stabilization occurred when the DOT, the Lottery and Golub’s headquarters came downtown: “They helped stabilize and develop the economy downtown. Now we need to focus on the neighborhoods.”
Grigsby said the challenge of any economic growth is to find a model that lifts up everybody.
“No one has a model to do community economic development. That is why people do different things,” he said. “We need a mini-Metroplex for community corridors, to provide that focus. It needs to be a block-by-block look.”
Schenectady County by the Numbers
Jobs and wages
Total number of all industry jobs in Schenectady County:
2000: 61,464, with total wages of $2.3 billion and an average wage of $36,873.
2004 (the year Savage became chair): 64,255, with $2.7 billion annually in wages and an average wage of $41,281.
2009 (preliminary): 63,262, with $3.1 billion in wages and an average wage of $46,228.
Source: State Department of Labor, quarterly census of wages and employment
2000: $61 million
2004: $76 million*
2009: $80 million
* In 2002, the county Legislature raised its portion of the sales tax by a half percentage point
Source: State Department of Taxation and Finance
2000: 3.5 percent
2004: 4.5 percent
2009: 5 percent
Source: State Department of Labor