Montgomery County is out of the running for a casino, but local officials are prepared with other plans for economic development in the area.
Big projects being discussed to help rebuild throughout the county include marketing the 512-acre site previously pitched for a casino, establishing a regional business park in the town of Mohawk and building a pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam.
“Those projects that we’re working on right now have the potential to be transformational,” said Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort. “We are looking at prepping a regional business park and also moving full steam ahead to get the [Thruway] Exit 27 property discussed for a casino shovel-ready. Those are large sites that can attract companies.”
Officials in the Amsterdam and the town of Florida were betting on that proposed casino to spur development on hundreds of acres of unused farmland. But the developers proposing the $250 million project, Clairvest Group Inc. and Great Canadian Gaming Corp., were seeking concessions from the state Gaming Commission that were ultimately denied and the application disqualified.
Now, Ossenfort said the site, owned by two local families, could be marketed as a business park with possible housing or retail elements. Development is contingent on rezoning the property from agricultural to commercial and extending sewer and water service.
“We would like to think that the casino issue brought some attention to that property,” he said. “It is very rare to find 500-plus acres right off a major interstate. We are keeping our options open.”
Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane said there have been many ideas for development of that land over the years. She said any of those proposals would be better for the city than an empty site. A majority of the property, however, is in the town of Florida.
“Before a casino, there was talk of commercial opportunities, such as a shopping center, an industrial park or residential community,” Thane said. “Any revenues that come from the development would be good for Amsterdam, and jobs are certainly a priority.”
To the west, a regional business park is being proposed on 285 acres in the town of Mohawk. Ossenfort said he would like to attract rail service to the site, which would allow the park to expand and attract manufacturing companies.
But Mohawk town Supervisor Ed Bishop isn’t on board with the project — yet. He doesn’t believe CSX would be interested in the location. Also, he is concerned about an increase in traffic and the safety of residents who live nearby.
“We are on hold as far as the regional business park is concerned,” Bishop said. “We have to address the issues that come with it. We can’t see the site expanding without something being done to mitigate traffic.”
The site does not have available water and sewer services and would therefore have to connect to the city of Johnstown, about five miles to the north. Once annexed into Johnstown, the site would be merged with that city’s Johnstown Industrial Park, where all land is zoned for industrial uses.
But Johnstown and Mohawk have yet to reach a revenue-sharing agreement for potential property and sales tax revenues generated from activity on the site. Kenneth Rose, CEO of the Montgomery County Business Development Center, the lead economic development agency for the county, said the lack of agreement is stalling the project.
“We’re looking at this as a regional project,” Rose said. “At times we’re concerned about what is going on at the local level, but ultimately, I’m sure local residents would be employed at the business park, and this would only benefit the area.”
Mohawk is updating its comprehensive plan over the next six months, and Bishop said the business park would be included in some form, but he is unsure about its future.
“We’re also talking about millions and millions of dollars," he said. "The site would create jobs, which is big in this area because of the lack of them. But you can’t develop just for the sake of the jobs and not address the issues that come with it.”
Meanwhile, Thane is focused on completing the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook in Amsterdam to spur economic development. The $16.5 million bridge across the Mohawk River will connect the city’s south and north shores, linking the south side’s neighborhoods and Erie Canalway Trail with Riverlink Park and downtown Amsterdam on the north side.
But Thane’s vision for the city is more than just a bridge. She has also been focused on sprucing up the waterfront with building upgrades and street repairs.
“For the past 15 years, we have been looking at the waterfront as an opportunity to develop and grow,” she said. “We are hoping that once the bridge is built it would attract more people and business to the area.”
Thane is also looking to bring the city’s small Amtrak train station from Route 5 at the western city line to the northern end of the bridge and provide a place for commuters to easily catch a bus, taxi or train. There’s also the possibility of a banquet facility or hotel built to overlook the water.
As part of this year’s statewide competition for economic development funding in October, the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council is seeking nearly $1.6 million for the bridge project, which is expected to be finished next year.
“What we anticipate is that this would become a tourist destination because it would be a very unique bridge,” Thane said. “This could be really, really huge for the city. We have a blank canvas, and we can make this into anything we want. So we should shoot for the grand vision.”
The council is also vying for $600,000 to modernize Amsterdam’s aging sewer system, which Ossenfort said would lay the foundation for investments in commercial, residential and industrial development.
Amsterdam, known for generations as the Rug City, was once globally recognized for carpet making. But like other cities along the Mohawk, Amsterdam was hit hard during periods of industrial decline in the 1950s and ’60s and again in the 1980s.
Thane said she would like to turn the city around, focusing on the positives rather than past troubles.
“We really need to be talking about the positive things happening here,” she said. “Our community is a beautiful little community, and that should be recognized.”
Officials are developing a three-year marketing campaign, led by the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, to attract visitors to the area. Ossenfort said growing the area’s agritourism is a priority to bring new business and visitors to places like Amsterdam and other communities across the county.
“We need to do a better job to attract people to Montgomery County,” he said. “There are a tremendous number of positive things we do in the county, and we can do a better job marketing that. Tourism is a big deal for me.
“The bottom line is that I see opportunity in every town but we have to work together.”