SCHENECTADY — The fuse has been lit on how $10 million in state economic development funds allocated last month to Schenectady will be utilized.
And it's going to burn fast.
State consultants guiding the city’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) promised a swift set of fast-moving deadlines.
“This is the fastest planning initiative we’ve ever done and maybe you will ever do,” said Steve Kearney, lead consultant for Schenectady DRI, to members of a newly minted panel tasked with steering the state’s economic investment.
In a 90-minute presentation on Tuesday, Kearney sailed through an overview of the DRI, which has allocated $100 million statewide annually since 2016 as part of the state’s strategy to galvanize downtown investment.
Schenectady was awarded the funds in November, joining Albany, Hudson, Glens Falls and Amsterdam, all of whom have been allocated funds in recent years.
The $10 million — or $9.7 million after a strategic investment plan is crafted — will be used to leverage at least $128 million in outside investment.
As part of the application, the Schenectady County Metroplex Authority highlighted several key projects, including docks at Mohawk Harbor and the proposed Capital Region Aquatic Center, a $30 million project at the same riverfront complex.
There’s a proposed 100,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex to be located between Rivers Casino & Resort and the marina bordering the riverfront.
And the city has long eyed connector projects designed to integrate downtown with Mohawk Harbor and Erie Boulevard, which is also poised for improvements along the corridor.
Still other projects might be suggested as part of Schenectady DRI’s public outreach process ahead of a Jan. 17 deadline.
“We are actively looking for projects,” Kearney said.
The 16-member group, known as the Local Planning Committee, includes many of the city's established government officials and economic development gurus, as well as business people, neighborhood leaders, educators and those from the nonprofit sector.
The panel will operate with state oversight and be supported by a team of private-sector experts, state planners and the state-picked consultant team, which has had experience working on previous DRI projects.
Ultimately, the group will be required to winnow down preferred projects and submit a list to state Department of State for approval by spring.
“We will have a plan to the Department of State on April 24,” Kearney said.
Once submitted, state officials will review projects and begin to decide which will be funded by summer, he said.
“We are going to spend this money wisely and fast,” said Galesi Group CEO David Buicko, who is co-chairing the committee alongside Mayor Gary McCarthy.
That final wish list will be closer to $15 million, said Kearney, because some projects may be plucked if other near-term funding opportunities present themselves.
A project that fails to be selected for funding isn’t dead in the water.
Officials have their eyes on other funding sources, which could "enhance or complement" projects, including the annual bonanza of state economic development awards doled out through the Regional Economic Development Council awards every year.
This year's ceremony is scheduled for Thursday.
REFINING VISIONS AND GOALS
Discussion at the debut Schenectady DRI event, held at SUNY Schenectady Community College, was largely centered on group members coalescing around concrete visions and goals for the effort.
Early goals identified by Metroplex and the state include increasing linkage opportunities, making downtown a 24/7 destination, building on a growing job base, increasing access to “green and blueways,” and “build on and celebrate our historic and cultural richness.”
While limited to downtown, officials said adjacent neighborhoods, including East Front Street and the Stockade, can expect ripple effects.
Panelist Mitch Ramsey, owner of the Jay Street Pub, wondered how to draw more Union College students, who tend to be sequestered, downtown.
“It’s a big population but also a much younger demographic,” he said.
Buicko said the Jay Street Connector, which would connect a shuttered stretch of North Jay Street to Erie Boulevard, would ideally help foster that attraction.
Panelist Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctors, said Schenectady is unique among cities of its size because of the theater.
One goal should be keeping people downtown longer, he said.
“I don’t think we’re friendly for hanging out,” Morris said, citing the lack of outdoor places to sit.
Others cited the need for more retail downtown.
Buicko agreed that attracting retail tenants can be a challenge.
“We’re good at restaurants, but not so good at getting shops,” he said. “We wrestle with it all the time.”
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen, who sits on the panel, noted key pieces of the city’s economic development strategy are falling into place.
Now that downtown is on the uptick, with an expanding job base, entertainment options and apartments growing at a white-hot clip, more retail will hopefully follow, he said.
While a chief goal is linking downtown with Little Italy and Mohawk Harbor, Mike Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission, said it’s important to emphasize "symbolic pathways" as well in order to make people living elsewhere — including ambassadors deployed as part of the mission’s programming — feel like this impacts them.
“They can be champions of a different type of connectivity, which is a symbolic one,” he said.
The LPC will meet the second Thursday of each month throughout the process.
Four meetings are planned to date, with the next scheduled for Jan. 9 and a public engagement session slated for Jan. 16.
A new project website will act as a clearinghouse for all Schenectady DRI-related information.
A form designed to solicit project ideas has has already generated 100-plus suggestions, Kearney said.
And a project profile form, along with additional information on which projects are eligible for funding alongside other official materials, is scheduled to go online Wednesday.
Several dozen community members attended the event, and Kearney stressed that ongoing public engagement is key.
“We need as much info as we can so we can vet and analyze these projects,” he said.