Some of the least-publicized and almost-forgotten facets of Schenectady’s revitalization wowed a crowd of out-of-towners Thursday at a HUD conference on housing and urban redevelopment.
Several officials from other cities, including Utica and Troy, said they want to replicate Schenectady’s ambassador program as soon as possible.
The program, run by City Mission and funded by the Metroplex Development Authority, trains formerly homeless people to greet and guide visitors to the downtown during special events. They stop traffic to get pedestrians from the parking garage to Proctors, offer umbrellas as they walk visitors across a street and even give them advice on the best restaurants for whatever food the visitor likes best.
“I love the ambassador program,” said Troy housing official Tim Mattice. “That should be a national model. It’s nice to come to a downtown you’re unfamiliar with and have these friendly faces. You feel comfortable and you feel safe.”
He’s going to try to get a similar program running in Troy, he said.
The conference sessions, held at Proctors, ranged from technical discussions about federal housing policies to an in-depth analysis of Schenectady’s successes. Mayor Gary McCarthy and other city officials spoke at many sessions, explaining at length the city’s efforts to renovate, sell and demolish vacant buildings, as well as many other initiatives.
McCarthy said the city’s biggest problem is the large number of vacant buildings. Other city mayors agreed.
But it wasn’t those long-term efforts that grabbed the attention of out-of-towners. It was the little things — like civility.
Attendees said they could tell from the way the speakers interacted that their various organizations actually work together.
“I am very excited about the work the city of Schenectady is doing in terms of creating partnerships,” said Utica official John Furman.
Others said that was the trick — getting everyone to agree on how to fix the city’s problems, and work on that strategy together.
Furman was so inspired he said the partnership should get bigger.
“I want to see, as a result of this conference, an almost upstate alliance,” he said. “We all share the same problems.”
He also planned to bring back to Utica detailed information about the city’s HOMES program, in which banks are offering special mortgage packages to those who buy a city house.
“I love the Key Bank home mortgage project. I wish Utica had something similar to that,” he said.
The solution to housing for the men who lived in rooms at the to-be-closed YMCA also got some officials’ attention.
Utica homeless coordinator Stephen Darman said he was pleased that a building on Broadway was being renovated for those men, in a project that will provide rooms for the formerly homeless as well as low-income apartments.
“The communities that keep the homeless at arms-length, it becomes a real problem. They’re out on the street,” he said. “You can rehab buildings and house homeless people. [Schenectady] has a long history of doing this work.”
He particularly praised the city for supporting the City Mission even though it’s in the downtown, and said the community clearly “embraces” development and housing for the homeless.
“We’re still working in that direction,” he said.
But the conference might help, he added.
“To change the conversation, you actually just need to have a conversation.”