If one were to ask anyone in Schenectady who Phil Lewis was, no one would know.
Lewis, a Wisconsin visionary, died in August.
Importantly, Phil was the architect of Schenectady’s downtown revival.
I first met Phil when I was president of Beloit College. A group of us had decided to revive Beloit, a Rustbelt city almost exactly one-half Schenectady’s size. We turned to Phil, a University of Wisconsin urban planning professor, to develop a blueprint for us.
Now, 30 years later, Beloit is thriving. It owes its revival to Phil’s ideas. So does Schenectady.
Following the creation of Schenectady 2000, an organization formed by a group of business, civic, and political leaders who were interested in the early 1990s in reviving a city that had clearly seen better times, I asked Phil to come to Schenectady to give us his insights. He did.
After studying our situation, Phil presented his findings in 1993 to a packed auditorium at Schenectady County Community College.
Those findings centered on improving access points, providing anchor buildings, and developing corridors to connect community assets. Before focusing on bringing businesses into downtown or enticing people to live in the center of the city, we needed to address these issues. So, we did.
Thanks to the thousands of volunteers who helped make Schenectady 2000 a success, we implemented each of Phil’s suggestions.
In the process, we turned pessimism to optimism among many in Schenectady.
When I came to Schenectady in 1990, I marveled at the city’s attributes. Yes, a number of negative things had occurred in the preceding decades.
But the city had amazing physical assets — among them, the Mohawk River, Central Park, City Hall, Proctors, the GE Plot and Stockade, and two colleges.
Schenectady also had tremendous diversity among its people, an arts scene, and proximity to what I labeled the “ABCs” (Adirondacks, Berkshires, and Catskills).
A few years later, Richard Florida, in The Rise of the Creative Class, concluded those three elements were essential to attracting what he called the “creative class”— engineers and scientists, arts and media personnel, education professionals and researchers—to post-industrial cities like Schenectady.
But Phil Lewis saw all that well before Florida gave the concept a name.
Lewis convinced those of us involved in Schenectady 2000, as in he did in Beloit, to direct our efforts to the points he suggested.
We did, and those points became the blueprint for what was to take place downtown.
The blueprint Phil Lewis provided lacked one thing — funding.
Bill Golub had brought Neil and me together, and, importantly, “Mr. Bill” provided $1 million in seed money to jump-start the process. With that money, we were able to undertake projects that helped people in the city soon see that brighter days were ahead of us.
A major funding source beyond the initial $1 million was needed, though. We soon settled on one — Metroplex.
Thanks to the efforts of many from both sides of the political aisle, we were able to get legislation through the New York Legislature that authorized the creation of Metroplex. The rebirth of downtown owes its success to Metroplex. Without it, the funds for the projects that have taken place would never have materialized.
Whenever I run into the mayors of other cities, I am asked how we were able to bring about this funding resource.
Each of those mayors would welcome it; none could replicate it.
It mattered little to those of us involved in the process who got credit for the rebirth of our city. What did matter to us was Schenectady, at least its downtown, was being revitalized.
For that, we were grateful.
Of course, if one wants to give credit for what has taken place, one need look no further than to Phil Lewis.
Without his original vision, we would not be where we are today.
Dr. Roger H. Hull is president emeritus of Union College and the founder of Help Yourself and Schenectady-WIN.