Sure, Schenectady might be showing a little bit of its age, but at 350 years old, who wouldn’t be.
The city is a place where the old and new meet in interesting ways. Erie Boulevard, today a primary roadway jammed with cars and trucks, was once the Erie Canal, the famous east-west waterway that spurred our nation’s expansion to the west.
There’s the beloved Stockade, a neighborhood filled with architecture from the earliest settlement. But the city is filled with reminders from other eras, from GE’s main plant to the elegant buildings on the Union College campus.
There was also the inevitable expansion that comes when anyone ages, then the contraction.
Over the last 350 years, Schenectady has learned and innovated, from the first look at higher education in its veritable youth of 134 years, to its more recent continuing education and vocational efforts, undertaken at the age of 306.
This is Schenectady as it is today, at the ripe old age of 350, a city that despite that number is making plans to be here and vital for years to come.
“Obviously, over 350 years, you look at all that expansion and growth that has captured the imagination of people around the world,” Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce President Chuck Steiner said recently. “When you think of the likes of GE, you think of that company and how it’s impacted millions of people and they continue to do it today.
“You reflect on what a great heritage we have and what a fascinating and proud future we hold.”
Schenectady today is a city with a population of more than 66,000, a far cry from a population that once topped 91,000 in 1950. But the decline in population appears to have ended, with the 2010 census showing growth over 2000.
Over the years, with the people have come important institutions: venerable Union College, founded in 1795, 134 years after Schenectady was first settled; and the relatively young Schenectady County Community College, founded in 1967, 306 years after Schenectady was settled.
Downtown Schenectady was once teeming with businesses and activity. It was a boom brought about in the first decades of the 20th century by the prosperity spurred by two big manufacturers: General Electric and American Locomotive. And while the downtown faded in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s as employment fell, it is now in the midst of a major revival.
The Schenectady City School District, the largest in the Capital Region, is in transition, as well. This fall, the district will begin looking for a permanent superintendent, after the last permanent head left under cloud of scandal. Board of Education president Cathy Lewis, said that search is to go on however long it takes. Whoever they pick will preside over a district with a wide range of programs, from international baccalaureate programs to vocational programs.
“I think the school district is healthy at this time,” Lewis said. “We have over 10,000 students. We have improvements to make, but it’s going to be a tough time at this point for school district.”
Educating those students and others has been the city’s higher education institutions of Union College and Schenectady County Community College.
Quintin Bullock, president of SCCC, sees his institution and its 3,800 students as an integral part of the city, establishing partnerships with the city school system, as well as partnerships with local industry, including General Electric.
The college also offers music and culinary arts opportunities to students.
Bullock pointed to an independent study that he said showed an economic boost of more than $329 million from the college and its students each year.
Of the college’s students, Bullock said, 59 percent stay in the city or the larger county after completion of their studies.
“The majority of the economic impact stays in the local economy,” Bullock said.
Working on the downtown development has been the Metroplex Development Authority. Buildings have been remade and redone, centered on Proctor’s.
Attention is now being paid to State Street toward the college.
“I think the downtown area is really growing into an arts and entertainment and technology area. That’s really what the district is becoming,” Metroplex chairman Ray Gillen said. “In a down national economy these last few years, we’ve been able to sustain the rapid pace of redevelopment here. That’s something we’re really proud of.”
Elsewhere, an old reminder of the city’s industrial past was recently demolished along Erie Boulevard, the old American Locomotive plant. In its place is to be built a combination of residential, office and retail space.
With Schenectady since its 231st birthday has been General Electric. Founded in Schenectady in 1892, the company still employs about 4,000 people at its campus at the end of Erie Boulevard, building turbines and, more recently, working on renewable energy.
General Electric’s renewable energy headquarters opened at the Schenectady site last year with a $45 million investment and the promise of 650 new jobs, GE spokeswoman Chris Horne said.
A new General Electric battery plant is expected to open later this year. At full capacity, that plant is to employ about 350.
At the same time, General Electric works into the fabric of the city and region, claiming $6 million invested in charitable efforts, along with 48,000 volunteer hours, with Schenectady getting its share.
“We have a strong history of innovation, and we’re still a driving force in Schenectady, with the business transforming and growing to meet the world’s current technology needs,” Horne said.