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Schenectady has fingers crossed for $10M sweepstakes

Schenectady has fingers crossed for $10M sweepstakes

City in the running for annual revitalization awards
Schenectady has fingers crossed for $10M sweepstakes
A view of State Street in Downtown Schenectady.
Photographer: Peter Barber / Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — For the past decade, the state has been seeding communities with billions in downtown economic development funds. 

And each year since 2016, the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) has awarded one community in each of the state’s 10 economic development regions $10 million for a supercharged shot in the arm. 

Past Capital Region recipients have included Hudson, Albany and Glens Falls, as well as Amsterdam in the Mohawk Valley. 

Schenectady continues to be in the running and has its fingers crossed as Gov. Andrew Cuomo crisscrosses the state this week announcing the winners of this year’s competition. 

Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority Chair Ray Gillen confirmed the city has submitted an application.

“We put in a good application and hope we win," Gillen said on Wednesday. 

Participating communities are nominated by the state’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils, panels made up of business, academic and community leaders.

Awardees this year include Fulton (Central New York), Baldwin (Long Island), Peekskill (Mid-Hudson) and the Niagara Falls Bridge District in western New York. 

No announcements were made on Thursday as Cuomo paused to propose a new domestic terrorism law.

The governor’s schedule for Friday was not available by late-Thursday evening. 

Winning communities use the funds to develop a downtown strategic investment plan and “implement key catalytic projects that advance the community’s vision for revitalization.”

Project applications are kept close to the vest, with neither a full list of applying localities or their applications made public ahead of time. 

But previous applications submitted by Schenectady have described how a $10 million check would help build on prior private and public investments to Mohawk Harbor and Proctors Theater.

This year, the state has asked regional councils to prioritize the following areas:

  • Work with local businesses and communities to identify childcare needs and develop potential solutions;
  • Develop an economic and environmental justice strategy for the region;
  • Support community investment in placemaking and downtown revitalization;
  • Support the Workforce Development Initiative;
  • Track the progress of the strategic economic development plan and projects funded through the Consolidated Funding Application

While Mayor Gary McCarthy declined to discuss the city’s application at length, he said he was “optimistic” the materials would be favorably reviewed. 

If awarded, he said the Electric City would leverage funds to build on millions in recent investments.

But other cities, too, are similarly engaged in revitalization efforts, he said.

“It’s competitive and we want what’s best for the region,” McCarthy said on Thursday. 

PROJECTS GREENLIT

This week’s announcements come weeks after last year’s awardees announced their priority projects.

In Amsterdam, key projects include a new recreation center and funds for a business incubator and STEM education center at the Amsterdam Free Library. 

Streetscape improvements are also a major driver of the city’s strategy.

Planners have allocated $1 million for "an attractive and defined gateway" at the intersection of Church and East Main streets, as well as funds for wayfinding — efforts designed to attract visitors to downtown businesses — as well as decorative lighting, sidewalk upgrades, landscaping and street furniture. 

Planners have also allocated $275,000 toward a $688,120 project to transform the historic Samuel Sweet Canal Store into a tavern and gift shop, a measure designed to draw tourists and out-of-town patrons to the area and "further strengthen the growing food and beverage scene on the Southside."

Priority projects in Albany are focused around Clinton Square, including efforts to bolster affordable housing and improve pedestrian safety. 

The governor has touted the program as a return to local control for upstate municipalities who have traditionally been ignored by Albany.

“Local government is where things actually happen,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “It is where you actually get traction.”

While local officials have praised the DRI’s community-based approach as a game-changer, some entities have questioned the program’s effectiveness and sense of priorities. 

Ken Girardin, an analyst at the Empire Center, a fiscally-conservative think tank, said the DRI is “built on the false assumption that sprinkling cash on struggling urban areas will result in lasting changes.”

State government, he said, “is directly responsible for making it harder to do business and to improve infrastructure in upstate cities.”

Upstate cities continue to struggle, he said, because state laws “tightly restrict” how they can restructure personnel costs and rebuild their infrastructure. 

“Those policies could be changed at no cost to taxpayers, but it's politically easier to present big checks than to take on the entrenched interests responsible for harming the business climate,” Girardin said. “Programs like DRI are about boosting politicians, not local economies.”

“It takes a level of cognitive dissonance to visit a city teetering on the brink of insolvency and think their most immediate need is to build a taxpayer-funded tavern,” Girardin said. 

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