There are few major surprises in the results of Amsterdam’s Community Needs Assessment Survey, conducted in July and August: Respondents generally view the city as blighted and depressed, with negative attitudes, poverty and leadership failures to blame.
Among the most pressing needs identified by the survey’s 188 respondents were bringing in good-paying jobs and turning around or demolishing blighted properties, while negativity and apathy, perceived Common Council dysfunction, and lack of funding were named most frequently as barriers to solving those problems.
“It’s a good starting point, but we need to refine the data,” said Robert von Hasseln, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development.
The survey was conducted as part of a collaboration between the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to study the community’s needs in order to draft a two-year plan to address them. The information from the assessment will also be used in drafting a new comprehensive plan for the city.
The survey captured about 1.5 percent of the city’s population, which von Hasseln said would have been low had the survey been shorter and easier — such a study would have had a roughly 5 percent participation rate. Given the survey’s length and detail, however, he said he was happy with the figure.
He noted one glaring problem, however: Survey respondents identified themselves as overwhelmingly white, older homeowners. 89.9 percent identified as white, 59 percent were between the ages of 46 and 65, and 78 percent own their own home. While the city’s Latino population is about 26.7 percent, only 8.5 percent of survey respondents identified as such.
With that in mind, von Hasseln said, a next step may be to conduct more tightly targeted surveys to reach different demographics or explore specific issues. This survey was available on the city’s website and in paper format at various locations throughout the city.
The survey was based on a series of community meetings held earlier in the year that identified specific “fields of concern” like public services, transportation, food, education, marketing, housing, revitalization, neighborhoods, downtown redevelopment and public facilities, among others.
“The survey helps us sharpen our focus,” von Hasseln said.
In a section with structured answers, respondents identified “rebuild economic foundation,” “stabilize and strengthen neighborhoods,” and “improve image and identity in region” as the city’s top priorities.
When asked to characterize the city in three words, things like “rundown,” “stagnant,” “depressed,” and “poor,” appeared most frequently.
“The answers were generally kind of grim,” von Hasseln said.
There was a ray of light, however, even if a somewhat prompted one. In the very next section, the survey asked respondents to “List three words that describe Amsterdam as it could be.” People wrote things like “enjoyable,” “destination,” and “thriving.”
“Amsterdam has a reputation for its negativity, but there’s still an aspect out there — people still think a good future is possible,” von Hasseln said. “That’s a very important thing.”
In terms of recreation, survey respondents were fairly satisfied with the city’s restaurants and cafes, opportunities for running, biking and walking, and its street festivals, while they indicated a lack of theater, museums and youth activities.
The East End, the city’s poorest neighborhood and home to much of its Latino population, was identified as the geographic area of greatest need, with downtown coming in second. Von Hasseln said he kept the data “raw,” with some of the city’s racial tensions exposed in responses like “No Puerto Ricans” to a question about what the city can do to improve.
“I think it’s important that people see that that’s out there,” he said.
Divisions, be they racial or political, were themselves identified by many as a problem facing the city.
Most respondents suggested tackling the city’s blighted properties as the first step toward improvement, with changes in political leadership, housing and transportation improvement also popular. The city has recently begun working with the Capital Region Land Bank and a joint code enforcement initiative with the cities of Gloversville, Schenectady and Troy to begin combating blight.
Von Hasseln said he will have meetings this week with those who participated in the original brainstorming sessions, then hold a public information meeting about the survey at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall. The full results are available on the city’s website.
In addition to the HUD plan, Von Hasseln said the data from the survey will come in handy for demonstrating community support and participation for other city projects, like a proposal to move the Amtrak station to a more central downtown location.
“I think it was well worth it,” he said. “It didn’t cost us much to do and it’s going to be in use now for quite some time.”