SCHENECTADY — The lights in downtown Schenectady are numerous and bright these days, but how best to keep them shining? And how best to illuminate the rest of the city?
These questions were a recurring theme during Electric City Shines Again!, a Thursday-evening forum featuring leaders in key parts of the downtown landscape — business, education, nonprofit and promotion.
The answer often boiled down to one thing: attitude.
Be more positive about the city, and work to create more to be positive about.
Featured speakers were Antonio Civitella, owner of Transfinder, a large downtown tech firm; Becky Daniels, executive director of Discover Schenectady, the county's tourism promotional agency; Kara Haraden, president of the Capital Region Aquatic Center, a major watersports facility proposed to be built at Mohawk Harbor; and Steady Moono, president of SUNY Schenectady Community College.
Moderator was Rick D’Errico, managing director of the New York BizLab, an incubator space owned by Civitella that hosted the event.
Daniels, a native of Schenectady and a product of its schools, left her job at General Electric to lead official promotional efforts for the county.
“It was a little bit risky … but I do have this passion to really change that narrative of what people think of when they think of Schenectady,” she said.
Civitella, who immigrated to Schenectady as a child, wanted to stay here as he acquired and built up a company best known for its vehicle-routing software. He built a prominent new headquarters downtown and has since acquired four other State Street properties.
The alternative locations were mostly business parks, and those “just didn’t feel right. … I wanted to see people, I wanted to interact.”
Civitella said he now draws ideas and inspiration from people he meets downtown — those who are fellow business leaders and tech experts, those who are not.
Haraden has been promoting the vision of the aquatic center for years, tentatively in Malta at first, now firmly in Schenectady. She said it will provide something for everyone and become a part of the community — guests will be within walking distance of much of downtown and also have hotels, restaurants and shopping right on site at Mohawk Harbor.
“It’s such a perfect fit.”
Moono updated the audience on progress in fundraising for the college’s new library and on the financial needs of those who attend the school. The college, he said, is a key pathway to the future for parts of the community, and 68 percent of its students receive financial aid to help them make that journey.
“This audacious goal that I have … is that any student who wants to get a Schenectady County Community College education should do so without hindrance of finances,” Moono said.
Questions posed to the four included:
How has Schenectady changed in the last five to 10 years, and what’s driving that change?
Civitella said the desire to do something with the city and a willingness to collaborate to make it happen were key. Previously, he said, investors would buy buildings as a speculative, undefined bet on the future. Now, buildings are bought or built for a specific purpose. “They’re not just buying to flip it, they’re building it to do something. That’s huge,” he said.
Daniels said: "'Collaboration’ is the first word that came to my mind,” relating how her 19-member board of directors contains people with competing business interests who leave their differences at the door to work together for Discover Schenectady.
Moono said he’s too new to the area to fully understand the change. But he recalled that colleagues told him he shouldn’t move to the Schenectady when, five years ago, he was considering leaving a Philadelphia-area school to take the helm at SUNY Schenectady. So the city’s negative image clearly was strong and widespread, he said. In the following five years, he has seen a "tenacity and grit" that he said may help explain Schenectady’s change for the better.
What is still missing from the Schenectady landscape?
Civitella’s observation is that too many people in Schenectady can’t afford to patronize the new businesses downtown, so the merchants fall back on trying to attract out-of-towners to buy $7 beers. “Let’s make sure people that live here — let’s elevate them. Let’s get them a high-paying job, because that’s the next level,” Civitello said.
Daniels followed up: “Some of the folks that do have the ability to spend here in Schenectady for the longest time were going elsewhere because they weren’t proud to be here.” That’s one of her biggest tasks: turning residents into proud ambassadors for their city.
Moono said he has the sense that there’s an invisible fence between the college and downtown for too many students — they seldom venture off campus, and that needs to change.
D'Errico asked Daniels how she got the “chip on her shoulder” about those who put down Schenectady.
One anecdote stands out for her: an item in the old Metroland weekly newspaper about the best view of each Capital Region city. For Schenectady, it was “in the rear view mirror as you drive away.”
Another contributing factor was right in her former workplace: She'd regularly overhear the General Electric human resources team telling out-of-area recruits they were wooing to Schenectady what a great place Saratoga County is to live.
D’Errico asked for final thoughts on the evening’s “Shining Again” theme.
Haraden noted her husband’s family’s auto dealership, which has operated in Glenville for the past decade, opened in Schenectady a century ago. “There’s a lot of history there,” she said. “We watched Schenectady rise — it was the place to be — and we watched it die. But we’re watching it thrive again. It’s amazing what’s happening here. We can’t solve all the problems, and there are problems, but we’re on the right path, I believe.”
Too many people who lived in the city in the bad times still define the city by those years, Civitella said, and some even manage to shape the perception of others with this view. “It really takes a lot of power to change people’s perception. But that’s what we have to do.”
Daniels said social media has been a useful platform as she tries to reshape perception. “I really do think that it does take generations, but the tide is turning and we’re really seeing it,” she said.
Moono has published a booklet of proverbs from his native Zambia, and D’Errico prompted him to share one particularly relevant to the evening’s theme:
“If you want to go fast, travel alone, but if you want to go farther, travel together.”