The history of Schenectady includes both eras of prosperity and adversity. What lies ahead?
Local seers peering into their crystal balls see a bright future, sparked by General Electric’s move into the renewable energy market and a revitalization of the city’s downtown.
Gary McCarthy, the city’s current mayor, said the next 50 years will be a positive chapter for the city. That’s in part due to GE’s decision to locate its Wind Energy and Renewable Energy Headquarters at the Schenectady-Rotterdam campus, a decision that has already paid dividends, both to shareholders and to the community, he said.
A 350th celebration
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The headquarters is coordinating efforts to capture a piece of the multi-billion-dollar renewable energy market, which consists of wind, solar, battery and geothermal components. It is home to an operations center that monitors 13,500 GE wind turbines scattered across the world, with the capacity to monitor thousands more. It employs 650 people — engineers, technicians and support personnel.
Also at the main plant in Schenectady, GE is building a $100 million factory to produce sodium metal halide batteries. The battery plant will open in 2012 and is projected to produce approximately 10 million cells annually when at full capacity. The power cells will have the capability of generating 900 megawatt hours of energy per year — the equivalent of the battery power required for 45,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with an 80-mile range, or enough energy to support 1,000 GE hybrid locomotives, the company states.
About 4,000 people work on the main GE campus now, about one-tenth the number that worked there in the plant’s heyday during World War II. But today’s number is a resurgence nonetheless, McCarthy said. “Schenectady has had a long, proud history, which has gone through different cycles. From the early 1970s, we saw a decline in manufacturing tied to a shift in GE, but now we are seeing a reverse trend, and GE is bringing manufacturing back and is positioning the community for future growth,” he said.
Ray Gillen, commissioner of economic development and planning for Schenectady County, said GE will continue to play a pivotal role in providing green energy solutions around the planet, out of their renewable energy headquarters located here.
Gillen said as green energy becomes more prominent and plays a greater role in meeting energy needs, the next big natural issue will be water. “It is a crisis today in some parts of the country, and we are sitting on a bountiful supply in Schenectady,” he said, referring to the Great Flats Aquifer. “This positions us extremely well in the future in attracting industry and jobs. We already are being looked at for projects related to water supply,” he said.
Rocco A. Ferraro, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said “demographics are favorable for continued growth in our urban areas.”
The 2010 Census showed that all eight cities in the Capital Region — led by Schenectady — increased in population for the first time since 1950. “The question is will that trend continue?” he asked.
A better life
Ferraro said cities like Schenectady continue to face real and perceived problems dealing with crime and education, which he calls quality of life issues. While young people are attracted to cities because of their amenities — easy access to mass transit, cultural activities and night life, families looking for an environment to raise a child and empty nesters concerned about crime are continuing to look elsewhere, he said.
“These structural issues at work represent challenges. Is the quality of life in the city going to make me stay in the city or attract me to living in the city?” he asked.
McCarthy recognizes the issue. “You have to get people to want to live in neighborhoods, and you have to create value. You do this by improving the school district, cracking down on code violations,” he said.
Roger Hull, a former president of Union College who is challenging McCarthy for mayor, has had experience in creating value in neighborhoods and generating change. He helped create Schenectady 2000, a nonpartisan civic booster organization that morphed into the Metroplex Development Authority. Metroplex, which is supported by a portion of Schenectady County’s sales tax proceeds, has spearheaded an economic development effort in Schenectady.
Hull said the “future of the city is bright so long as two things happen: One is that we are honest with ourselves about the depths of our problems, and that we reach across party lines and solve those problems.”
Hull said Schenectady 2000, for example, was a group of people who came together and had a vision about what could be done. Hull said the city has three key components to help with its future growth: a music scene, recreation and diversity. “Companies are looking for communities that have those three elements,” he said. “I feel this is the place that has a great future, and I want to help make that future as bright as possible,” he said.
Whatever the future portends, it will most certainly include Proctors, said the cultural center’s CEO, Philip Morris. A $30 million rehabilitation and expansion of Proctors, which was one of Metroplex’s first major investment projects, served as the anchor of downtown’s revitalization. Proctors brings more than 600,000 people downtown annually for its events.
Morris said arts and culture are essential in attracting people to a city, any city, including Schenectady. The role of Proctors in this is that “it will help define the area and play a role in defining it for a while.”