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Downtown greatly changed after 20 years of Metroplex

Downtown greatly changed after 20 years of Metroplex

Economic development agency has grown beyond early years of strife
Downtown greatly changed after 20 years of Metroplex
State Street in Schenectady, September 2018.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority turned 20 this summer.

The anniversary passed without fanfare, but had the economic development agency’s staff been inclined to look back on their accomplishments, they wouldn’t have had to look far from their State Street office.

Downtown Schenectady is a very different place in 2018, vibrant and renewed compared with the timeworn and partially vacant neighborhood that existed in 1998.

In its 20 years, Metroplex has spent more than $140 million in sales tax revenue and captured more than $100 million in grants to assist more than 700 projects worth more than $1.3 billion occupying more than 8 million square feet and employing more than 8,000 people.

Metroplex has reached other parts of the city and gone out into the suburbs, but the heart of downtown has been a focal point of its work. The result is a striking then-and-now success story where many more people work, play and live now than in 1998.

Before and After: Drag the slider between images to see how Schenectady has changed.Compare Schenectady's State Street between Jay Street and Clinton Street in 2005 vs. 2018.

The scale of changes downtown is rivaled recently by the construction of Mohawk Harbor, an equally sweeping transformation of old Schenectady. While the many infrastructure and industrial projects Metroplex has worked on have had large impacts of their own, these sites are virtually invisible except to the people who work there. 

Downtown is what people notice most.

THE DECLINE

“Back in the 1960s you went downtown. Downtown was it,” said Al Jurczynski, who has watched the city thrive, decline and begin a comeback in his 62 years and was mayor when Metroplex was chartered.

“It was so discouraging to look at downtown, it was an embarrassment.

Twenty years ago, when Gov. George Pataki came here and signed the Metroplex legislation, that was the single biggest thing that happened to Schenectady.

Along with the challenge presented by the physical decay, there was a need to change the mindset of residents and the business community, said John Manning, Metroplex chairman from 1998 to 2004. The city’s population dropped from 91,000 to 61,000 between 1950 and 2000, and much of the downtown business base followed those former residents to the suburbs or otherwise disappeared.

Even Schenectady 2000, an effort to build civic pride and kick-start revitalization in the mid-1990s led by a local college president and supermarket executive, had limited tangible impact, though some now credit it with setting the stage for the creation of Metroplex.

Before and After: Click through the photo gallery to see how Schenectady has changed.

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By 1998, many saw the city as a “backwater,” Manning said, with few people in business attire visible during daylight hours and sidewalks largely deserted after dark. 

The need, Manning recalls a consultant saying, was for a 16-hour downtown — a place where people wanted to go beyond the 9-to-5 weekday workday.

“Once it got rolling, it started to have a life of its own, in that businesses wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Getting it rolling took some time. Growing pains, personality clashes and turf struggles marked the early years of Metroplex.

THE RECOVERY

Two big economic development milestones — construction of MVP Health Care’s headquarters and a regional state office building — bookended downtown State Street in the early 2000s. 

What the two red brick buildings lacked in architectural flourish they made up in impact, putting a combined 1,000-plus workers on that short stretch of State Street. 

Other efforts by Metroplex during its early years are still a point of contention: Depending on whom one asks, it’s either an important period in which the foundation for future success was set in place, or a series of bungles and missed opportunities.

But in the next two decades, that strip of State Street between Nott Terrace and Erie Boulevard would see tens of millions of dollars of public and private investment. Proctors would evolve from a charming historic theater into a regional performing arts center and an economic engine of its own. 

With a movie multiplex, hotel, additional professional offices, multiple apartment buildings and a variety of restaurants and watering holes, it has become at least a 12-hour downtown, if not the 16-hour destination Manning cited.

Before and After: Drag the slider between images to see how Schenectady has changed.Compare the view of State Street, looking west from Veterans Park in 1999 vs. 2018.

Much of the change has come during the tenure of Ray Gillen, who took over from Manning as Metroplex chairman in 2004.

“We’re so proud of our success because we’ve had it in some of the worst economic times our country has had,” Gillen said, referencing the Great Recession of a decade ago.

“Schenectady was in deep decline in the early 2000s,” he said. “What we tried to do, what we still do every day, is bring it back from that edge.

“We had arguably the most distressed downtown in New York state.”

THE MECHANISM

The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority stands out among New York’s legion of economic development entities for a few reasons, according to the Authorities Budget Office, a state watchdog. 

Critically, it has a funding stream dedicated to it: a percentage of the sales tax collected within the county.

Also, it has another mission beyond economic development: building the community and its quality of life. It could be argued that this is a secondary effect of most economic growth, but for Metroplex, it is the primary goal in some cases.

“I’m still astonished nobody in the state of New York has adopted what we’ve done,” said grocery store executive and philanthropist Neil Golub, the only original member still serving on the Metroplex board of directors after 20 years.

Metroplex is envied by economic development agencies statewide, said Jeffrey Pearlman, director of the Authorities Budget Office. “I am aware that Metroplex is the one that all these other agencies want to be,” he said.

Gillen said he is mystified by the wishful thinking. 

Any county can earmark any percentage of its sales tax for any purpose, he said — nothing is stopping them from making a metroplex-style funding stream of their own.

Of course, if a county took $8 million a year out of its general budget and spent it on economic development, it would need to jack up property taxes or slash spending to cover the difference. That’s a hard sell anywhere in New York, where almost every county already has a total sales tax rate of 8 percent or higher.

Twenty years ago, it was easier in Schenectady County because the total sales tax rate here was just 7 percent. 

More on Metroplex at 20: 

To give Metroplex some real impact, Schenectady County got state approval to raise its total sales tax rate to 7.5 percent to fund it. To make this concept more palatable to non-city legislators and taxpayers, the county earmarked a chunk of the sales tax increase to be paid to town and village governments.

From 1999 through the end of 2017, that extra 0.5 percentage point of sales tax had netted $139 million for Metroplex and $60 million for the five towns and two villages. 

(The county later sought and received state approval to bring its total sales tax rate to 8 percent, where it remains today; the additional money goes not to Metroplex, nor the towns, but to county government.)

One other obstacle stands in the way of another county replicating the Metroplex model: All of its existing economic development agencies would have to agree — or be strong-armed — to give way so the new entity could be the single voice for the entire county in economic matters.

Cuting the 29 economic development agencies in Schenectady County down to six has been as critical to the success of Metroplex as the sales tax money.

THE MISSION

Metroplex has used that $139 million to aid more than 700 projects. It has also issued $73.8 million in bonds, $52.8 million of which are still outstanding. And it secured more than $100 million worth of state and federal funding, mostly through grants.

Metroplex can issue grants to developers (Gillen prefers to call them investments rather than grants, and he doesn’t have a tally of how many millions of dollars worth of these investments Metroplex has made). 

Metroplex also can pay for improvements to public infrastructure such as parking and paving, and it can assist projects to provide housing for the new residents and workers it is trying to attract to the city. It will often give tax breaks to larger projects with significant economic impact.

Before and After: Drag the slider between images to see how Schenectady has changed.Compare the corner of State Street and Broadway in Schenectady, in 1999 vs. 2018. It is now the site of a new DOT building.

The mission and the method vary by location, sometimes significantly. The priorities and sequence of events when courting a manufacturer to put 200 jobs in a Glenville industrial park, for example, will be markedly different than when convincing a developer to bring new life to a derelict downtown landmark.

“You can create tax impact and jobs with the least impact on quality of life [in a suburb], whereas in the city you’re trying to create quality of life,” Gillen said.

“We’ve had a ton of projects in the towns. We’re kind of typecast as the downtown developers.”

THE LARGER PICTURE

Gillen generally avoids comment on the early days of Metroplex, yet is quick to point out what is better in the later years.

The others working for economic development 20 years ago also seem to have buried whatever ill feelings they once had.

Manning was retired when he became the first Metroplex chairman and didn’t mind being retired again when the role went to Gillen.

The personality conflicts and sniping weren’t so bad, Manning said, but they were unavoidable given the circumstances. A lot of local leaders expected Metroplex to be an adjunct to their own efforts, which it was never meant to be.

“The issue, that we had to revitalize Schenectady, was so much more important,” the longtime Rotterdam resident said.

The longtime leader of economic development in Schenectady County in the 1980s and 1990s, George Robertson, departed the area in early 2006 after being effectively marginalized. He later led local development efforts in Louisiana, Maryland and finally Indiana. Now 70, he’s recently retired as head of the Kosciusko Economic Development Corporation near Fort Wayne. He plans to devote more time to scouting and beating cancer. 

“Toughest fight I’ve ever had,” he said.

Robertson said from what he’s heard, Metroplex has met the promise and vision with which it was created. He credits Schenectady 2000 for laying the groundwork that made Metroplex possible, as well as a fundamental shift within the economic development world toward “quality of place” being a goal as important as construction and job creation.

“As to the negative stuff,” he said of his ouster, “what happened in Schenectady was a small story compared to what’s happening in the nation today. It’s a transition that happened. It doesn't bother me.”

Just as Robertson eventually suffered from being in a Democratic stronghold in Schenectady County, he has benefited from being in a Republican stronghold in Kosciusko County.

“This county is 80 percent Republican and we don’t have any fights,” he said.

Employment climbed from 33,000 to 40,000 countywide during his tenure. “We had a good run here.”

Jurczynski served two terms as mayor but opted not to run for a third in 2004. Then-Gov. Pataki appointed him deputy director of the state Office for Small Cities. He later lost a run for the Schenectady County Legislature and worked as a jail guard and a car salesman. Currently he’s an Uber driver.

Before and After: Drag the slider between images to see how Schenectady has changed.Compare the corner at State Street and Broadway in Schenectady in 2001 vs. 2018. It is now the home of Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland.

He says Metroplex has accomplished what it was meant to do, in some parts of the city. 

“The sad commentary in Schenectady in 2018 is the downtown’s looking good but the neighborhoods sure aren’t.”

A little of the Republican serving in office for 20 years in a Democratic city still seeps through in his recollections.

“The heavy lifting was actually done between 1998 and 2003,” Jurczynski said. “Without that foundation, where would we be today?

“It wasn’t perfect. I can tell you it hasn’t been perfect [in recent years] on a one-party system. … I take tremendous satisfaction knowing I was one of the pioneers, part of the team.”

Roger Hull, who while Union College president was instrumental with Golub in creating Schenectady 2000, said Metroplex has created a success story downtown, and praised it for finally beginning to turn its attention to other parts of the city. 

He's criticized the idea that nothing good happened before the Democrats took over in the city, and also the amount of fiscal discipline shown with all the new tax dollars generated by economic development.

"The bottom line is Metroplex has produced a significant financial return if not a windfall for the city," Hull said. "And of course the accompanying point is, where is the benefit for taxpayers?"

Nonetheless, "I think it has lived up to the vision."

More on Metroplex at 20: 

 

Golub said the impact of Metroplex is all around for all to see.

“So here we are 20 years later, we look around and see what’s going on and see progress. We’ll have this year, next year, nearly 2,000 new living units in Schenectady,” he said. “I can see three new hotels from my office.”

He credits Executive Director Jayme Lahut for making Metroplex function so well and Gillen for spreading its mission so well across personal and geographic dividing lines within the county.

“Schenectady was infamous for people working against each other,” Golub added. 

“It has truly been inspirational to bear witness to this community opportunity. It is a wonderful example of what can happen when people work together to accomplish a common goal. This opportunity is repeatable in other communities.”

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