Mohamed Hafez waited quietly for the board members to finish their business. In the fourth floor office of Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, he looked anxious, like he might not get a chance to say what he had come to say.
It was April 18, just a few weeks after he saw an article in the newspaper about the town of Niskayuna wanting to expand the Metroplex service district to more of its commercial areas.
“How do we do this here?” he thought to himself.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen had just wrapped up the meeting and opened the floor to public comment. Board members swiveled in their chairs, looking expectantly at Hafez, the only member of the public in the room.
Hafez introduced himself as president of the Mont Pleasant Association. He stumbled over a few words when he mentioned the newspaper article and his face grew red as he reminded the board that his neighborhood sat just around the corner.
“We are concerned with the Crane Street business district,” he said. “We have a lot of tenants moving out — for obvious reasons. What’s the protocol to follow to get these grants? A lot of people were surprised about the expansion of your organization to Niskayuna, in areas that really, when compared to Mont Pleasant, do not need the funds and grants.”
His was not a lone concern. Residents of several neighborhoods throughout Schenectady have shared similar views, speaking up at City Council meetings and Neighborhood Watch events, and sharing frustrations with their neighborhood association leaders. Residents say they pick up the newspaper and read about downtown Schenectady getting new sidewalks, new crosswalks, new street lamps; they’ve said they feel frustrated when the affluent, suburban town of Niskayuna gets another new grocery store, an expansion or a new business, and that they resent the bright storefronts and busy sidewalks along Upper Union Street.
All the while, they’ve voiced concerns at meetings and local gatherings, concerns over the lack of economic development in their own parts of town — in Mont Pleasant, in Bellevue, in Central State and along Van Vranken Avenue.
One reason for this perceived lack of economic development, said Gillen, is that neighborhoods by their very nature are residential. And the neighborhoods with the least economic development are also the ones where residential property by and large outweighs commercial property.
When Hafez showed up to the April board meeting, he was new to the process. The neighborhood he represented didn’t have a working relationship with the economic development agency the way some others do.
Since that meeting, he and other neighborhood association members have sat down with Metroplex and city officials about how to get their hands on the funds that always seem to go elsewhere in the city.
“The Metroplex mind set has been mischaracterized for years as having a singular focus on downtown,” said Gillen. “We are a county wide economic development authority.”
The agency was established in 1998 to boost economic development across the county. Its service district began with 24 square miles and eventually grew to more than 84 square miles as the governments of neighborhoods and suburbs voted to join the district.
Metroplex is prohibited from planning, financing or developing projects on residential land. Since Gillen took over as chairman in 2004, Metroplex has completed major projects downtown, but also in the city’s neighborhoods and neighboring towns. The agency played a role in downtown Schenectady’s transformation from a dilapidated ghost town with empty storefronts to a growing arts, entertainment and commercial center, helped in large part by the renovation and expansion of Proctors in the past decade. Gillen described it as one of the most depressed downtowns in Upstate New York when he arrived in the city.
Economic development had to begin somewhere, he said, and downtown was a good place to start. But that doesn’t mean that Metroplex doesn’t give the same attention elsewhere, he said.
“We are ready and able to look at projects anywhere in the county that is also included in the Metroplex service territory,” he said. “In the towns, that includes the vast majority of commercial areas. In the city, that includes the entire city with a strict prohibition on residential property in any neighborhood.”
This delineation between commercial and residential is often misunderstood. Back in March, for example, at a Niskayuna Town Board meeting where officials discussed expanding the Metroplex service district to more commercial zones in town, residents spoke at privilege of the floor to ask that the agency not put construction zones next door to their homes.
One resident accused Metroplex of only caring about the commercial strips of downtown Schenectady, and allowing the rest of the city to deteriorate.
Metroplex board member Bill Chapman, a former Niskayuna town councilman, was in favor of increasing Metroplex’s boundaries, stating it would help more businesses. But when he cited those advantages at the March meeting, he pointed to downtown as the best example.
“I think anyone who is driving around downtown Schenectady has certainly seen the improvements — not only in architecture, but in job development that’s happened in our community,” he said.
He added that the towns of Rotterdam and Glenville have benefited from numerous facade improvement grants offered through the agency, and reminded the board of the work Metroplex did in Niskayuna’s former St. James Square, the plaza where ShopRite now sits.
It’s important to keep in mind how Metroplex is funded. The agency receives 70 percent of one-half of 1 percent of the county’s sales tax revenue. This amounts to just under $8 million projected for this year.
Mont Pleasant hurting
“Businesses on Crane Street generate sales tax revenue, which Metroplex gets a portion of,” said Hafez. “But there’s little evidence of a return of that revenue back to the business corridor of Mont Pleasant.”
Sidewalks are decaying, roads are in bad shape, storefronts are ugly and faded, and businesses continue to move out — staples like Rite Aid and family-owned shops like Frank Gallo & Son Florist.
In fact, Hafez said, it’s been his observation that Metroplex helped move business away from the low-income community. Three years ago, John D. Marcella & Son Appliances relocated from Crane Street and built a new retail distribution showroom on Broadway in downtown Schenectady with the help of a $250,000 grant from Metroplex and a low-interest loan. The family-owned chain retained a scratch and dent store on Crane Street, but Hafez said there was a vacant space next door where it could have expanded.
“Metroplex could have addressed that at the time,” he said.
Gillen remembers it differently. Marcella’s was planning to move all of its operations to Colonie, in Albany County, where it also had a store.
“We reached an agreement where they kept one facility on Crane Street and they built a new facility on Broadway,” he said.
The overall cost of the project, including construction, interior fit-up and inventory, was nearly $5 million.
“It was better to keep them in the county than lose the business, which is a major generator of sales tax,” he said.
Residentially, Mont Pleasant was one of several city neighborhoods to fall victim to the outsourcing of General Electric jobs decades earlier.
Metroplex officials meet every week with individual business owners from all around the county, said Gillen. If it seems like some areas get more attention than others, it could be because, oftentimes, the agency attempts to build momentum in an area by doing multiple projects at once.
Upper Union Street is a good example, said Gillen. The neighborhood is home to a business improvement district made up of commercial building owners who have lobbied Metroplex many times over the last decade when they’ve wanted help.
Two of the biggest projects in this neighborhood included a facade program and streetscape project. Metroplex provided a 50 percent matching grant to commercial tenants and property owners who agreed to completely rehab their facades — this meant new windows, doors, trim, siding and signage. Metroplex and the city each agreed to pay for half of a three-year project to install new sidewalks, trees, benches, lighting and parking along the corridor. That project wrapped up last fall.
In part a result of these projects, businesses continue to move into, expand or relocate to Upper Union Street.
It helped that Upper Union had its own business improvement district, said Gillen. The BID did the persuading and sought out the business owners who were willing to make their own private investments alongside the public investments.
But Bob Harvey is looking to revitalize Schenectady neighborhoods where taxpayers can’t afford to fund a BID.
Harvey is president of Schenectady United Neighborhoods, an umbrella organization for about 10 of the city’s neighborhoods. As such, he’s in the process of learning just how to work with city and county officials to get the help they need.
He’s searching for grants, reaching out to local representatives, and trying to get a handle on the state grants available through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Open for Business” initiative involving regional economic development councils. But investment also has to come from the community, he said.
“One idea is to get business owners to band together and establish a master plan and contribute some of their own funds,” he said. “You have to see investment from businesses.”
Mont Pleasant Association has done much of this legwork already, starting with the basics. Residents have been turning out on weekends for beautification projects such as planting flowers, grooming islands and painting fire hydrants.
Association Vice President Sharron-Linn Schmidt has talked to dozens of business owners in the neighborhood to gauge their concerns.
“What some of the business owners are sharing with us is that they would like to see a clothing store, a toy store, possibly a game arcade for the youth, and some entertainment venues,” she said. “And we would like to see some real job-producing enterprises.”
The business district on Crane Street is where it needs to happen, she said.
“The surrounding businesses, the residences, the whole community of Mont Pleasant depends on the revival of the business district,” she said.
While most of the clamor for outside help has come from Mont Pleasant, cries from the city’s other neighborhoods are growing louder, said Harvey.
The stretch of Broadway through Bellevue, Van Vranken Avenue on the city’s North Side, and Central State neighborhood all need more economic development, he said. They all want to improve how they look to attract more customers and to keep the sidewalks busy.
Metroplex officials will contend, though, that they have helped these areas.
On the North Side, for example, is one of Metroplex’s hallmark projects: the redevelopment of the formerly vacant Big N Plaza into the new $30 million Golub Corp. headquarters. It has also funded several renovations and facade improvements along lower Nott Street and Van Vranken Avenue, said Gillen.
“We believe that our $100 million-plus redevelopment of the former Alco site will also benefit the North Side and the entire city,” he said.
In the Central State neighborhood, Metroplex gave Hometown Health $2.5 million to help reduce debt it took on to construct a new facility at 1044 State St.
Gillen confirmed that he has recently met with business owners and the neighborhood association in Mont Pleasant.
“We have indicated our ability to move forward with projects if there are commercial business owners, not residential, that want to upgrade and invest in their property,” he said.
Harvey said a large part of neighborhood revitalization depends on educating business owners on how to market themselves for outside help — whether its from Metroplex, the city or the state.
“But we can’t just say, ‘Hey Metroplex! Help the neighborhoods!’ The businesses need to work together. The neighborhoods need to organize and educate,” he said. “And Mont Pleasant has been very enthusiastic about banding together to set up an improvement plan.”