SCHENECTADY — It’s all about making connections.
With the injection of a $10 million state grant, the city aims to take the ongoing fibers of its economic resurgence, from developments at Mohawk Harbor to downtown rebirth, and link them together — literally.
The $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) award announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday will allow the city to further long-planned connections between the two hotspots, including linking Little Italy to Mohawk Harbor and completing a pedestrian tunnel between Erie Boulevard and Jay Street.
Cuomo, who rolled out the prize at Proctors, said: “Connect those pieces. Connect that energy. And that's just what your downtown application did."
The DRI, now in its fourth year, allocates $100 million annually statewide, awarding one locality in each of the state’s 10 economic development regions $10 million for improvements designed to spur broader investment.
Funds will also accelerate the demolition of long-vacant buildings, including the former Coyne Textile building on Erie Boulevard near Mohawk Harbor, as well as allow for additional downtown facade improvements.
“It builds on a great number of things that are happening in this community, and allows us to go to the next level,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said.
With the funds now awarded, the city will begin the process of winnowing down specific projects as part of a “strategic investment plan” designed to guide the process.
A local planning committee made up of municipal representatives, community leaders and others will lead the effort, supported by a team of private sector experts and state planners.
“Both of these are designed to bring more tourists into the city,” said Eric Gertler, acting commissioner and president and CEO-designate of Empire State Development.
The state award also will augment projects that ideally will galvanize broader private investment, including the demolition of the former Citizens Bank building downtown.
Redburn Development Partners, which has renovated a slew of historic downtown buildings, plans on erecting a building on the site.
“It’s probably going to end up leveraging a couple hundred million dollars in economic development, which is fantastic news,” said Jeff Buell, principal of Redburn Development Partners. “We’re very bullish on Schenectady, and very excited about the future of Schenectady.”
Schenectady was hit hard with the departure of American Locomotive and GE downsizing, Cuomo said.
Part of that was “economic forces outside our control,” he said. But past administrations failed to “act appropriately" by failing to create a solid strategy for moving forward.
The governor also blamed a state Legislature dominated by downstate lawmakers: “What's your vision? What's your plan? And then somebody had to go first and invest in that plan, provide that startup capital to make the transformation and that should have been the state government.”
Under the state’s Regional Economic Development Council program, people from academic, business and public sector hash out economic development strategies tailored to their unique dynamics.
Cuomo’s last official visit to Schenectady was in 2017 to unveil the design for the new Schenectady Train Station.
“It’s my pleasure to be back in Schenectady in my official capacity,” Cuomo said. “I come often in my unofficial capacity when I escape the mansion incognito and leave the troopers behind.”
Another key goal of the DRI is attracting Millennials to live and work downtown.
The governor said many are not interested in the suburban lifestyles favored by their parents.
“That is not their dream," Cuomo said. "In many ways, they are smarter than that. They do not want to contribute to sprawl. They do not want to spend time driving in the car. They do not want to burn gasoline. They want to be in downtown areas.”
Schenectady has seen an explosion in downtown apartment building over the past half-decade.
Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino & Resort transformed a slice of polluted industrial waterfront into a vibrant area with housing and businesses, while 900 new apartment units have been created downtown, not including 74 pending units at the Mill Artisan District project, which previously received $2.3 million in state funding for the $14.1 million project.
On the cosmetic front, Erie Boulevard has seen a spate of demolitions this summer and fall, sweeping away former industrial buildings and shuttered car dealerships.
McCarthy said the state has been a critical partner in helping solve complicated issues related to the development efforts — including clearing titles and sorting through environmental and financing issues — that have stymied past developers seeking to tackle the projects.
“They’re never been afraid of the challenge,” McCarthy said.
Previous Capital Region DRI awardees have included Albany, Hudson and Glens Falls, and Amsterdam in the Mohawk Valley.
While Schenectady previously submitted basic information to the state for the first round of awards in 2016, this is the first year they’ve competed with other localities for the award, beating out Castleton on Hudson, Rensselaer, Tannersville and Troy.
The award, McCarthy said, shows that Schenectady is setting the standard for development.
“We’re not afraid of competition," McCarthy said. "We’re not afraid of competition in New York state; we’re not afraid of competition within this country, and we’re not afraid of competition globally," he said. "We’re going to do things that set us apart and make us unique.”
McCarthy acknowledged past officials have laid groundwork for the announcement, including former county Legislature chairwoman Susan Savage and former mayor Brian Stratton.
“We were lucky to get $10 from the state in my day, let alone $10 million,” Stratton said. "The governor has really transformed the whole regional economic development process. He’s been true to his word, and focused like a laser on upstate economic development.”
And Stratton said the downtown growth will ultimately further strengthen and benefit the city's neighborhoods.
“You can’t have a strong city as a whole without having a strong downtown, which in turn, will also help the neighborhoods," he said. "You’re going to bring in more business, more revenue, and that’s going to help you be able to build out and do the things we need to do.”
Stratton, who serves as director of the Canal Corporation, noted the city is joining eight other DRI localities along the canal corridor, which presents numerous growth opportunities.
Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes Region awardees have yet-to-be announced, and both are located along the Erie Canal.