SCHENECTADY — The race to select the projects worthy of $10 million in state economic development grant funds has entered warp speed.
The group of local decision-makers guiding Schenectady’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) is required to draft project profiles by Tuesday and select final projects by March 20.
Roughly three-dozen proposals are on the table.
They range from community-sponsored public art projects to larger concepts pitched by private developers and non-profits, including a food co-op, apartment complexes, mixed-use structures, urban art studios and equipment to bolster outdoor events.
Officials expect the state’s $10 million investment will leverage at least $128 million in outside funding.
There’s no guarantee all of the projects will be funded.
But roughly a quarter of the 16-member panel tapped with making the final decisions represent organizations who are not only jostling for funding, but are also actively pitching projects themselves.
They include the city, Proctors, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Rivers Casino & Resort and Schenectady Country Metroplex Development Authority.
Driving pedestrian traffic between downtown and Mohawk Harbor is the centerpiece of the effort.
David Buicko, CEO and president of the Galesi Group, which developed Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino & Resort, is co-chair of the panel.
Early plans for at least one major project seeking an unspecified amount of funding, the Capital Region Aquatic Center, call for the complex to be located at Mohawk Harbor.
‘DISCLOSE, ACT, DISQUALIFY’
No one is alleging that panelists are engaging in anything untoward. But the chummy arrangement is raising eyebrows among good-government groups.
“Any time you have individuals who are considering and voting on proposals, and yet have skin in the game, that at the very least creates the appearance of a conflict or interest, if not an outright one,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser with Reinvent Albany. “It just invites public skepticism because it’s very easy to imagine a scenario where members are supportive of each others’ projects.”
Camarda acknowledges the expertise deprived from heavy-hitters can be valuable.
But in a city of 66,000 people, attracting people devoid of potential conflicts shouldn’t be difficult.
“It’s always a balance to find people with economic development know-how and include everyday people who care about the community, but may not have that skill,” he said.
Panelists are not required to submit ethical disclosure forms, according to the state Department of State, which is overseeing the effort and approved the members of what’s known as the Local Planning Committee, or LPC.
But LPC members are reminded of their responsibility to adhere to a code of conduct at the beginning of every meeting, said a department spokesperson.
That code includes the acronym DAD:
“Disclose conflicts of interest, act in the public interest and disqualify if necessary.”
Members found in breach of the code will be removed from the committee.
LPC members are also supposed to flag potential conflicts during discussion sessions and recuse themselves from conversations regarding their own projects.
Despite the stringent safeguards, however, there were few raised hands at last month’s planning session when a new round of projects were announced, prompting the consultant leading the process to remind them.
Mayor Gary McCarthy, the panel’s co-chair, pointed at the code of conduct when asked about potential ethical conflicts.
“There’s a clear process where people have to disclose that,” McCarthy said.
But Camarda, the analyst with Reinvent Albany, said “recuse and disclose” policies are insufficient in preventing conflicts because they are unenforceable.
“There's just no way to know whether they’re having side conversations about projects,” Camarda said. “It’s just impossible to know if those policies are truly being followed.”
The panel also contains business owners, neighborhood association leaders and those in the financial and non-profit sectors.
State officials defended the makeup, contending the process involves a broad cross-section of the community, all of them with a “personal, cultural, economic and/or a financial interest in the city’s improvements.”
“You want people who are invested in the community to be part of this process,” McCarthy said. “They’re able to see what’s going on. They’re the ones making the decisions and they’re the ones that are going to help fund part of this also.”
Union College President Dr. David Harris asked the most pointed questions about the proposals at last month’s work session at SUNY Schenectady, inquiring about project sponsors and why panelists weren’t given materials to review ahead of time.
Harris declined to elaborate further through a spokesman on Friday.
Buicko didn’t respond for comment.
The LPC will vote this spring on a package of projects totaling $15 million.
State guidelines also require panelists with projects up for consideration to recuse themselves from votes involving their own projects.
McCarthy has said he wants the final projects to be bundled together in a single package, but said the specific voting system hasn’t yet been determined.
“I’d like the final package to be one clear package that’s recommended,” he said.
It remains unclear how panelists can vote for a unified package but recuse themselves from specific projects included in that bundle.
Panelists may be able to lean on the state Department of State, who said an ethics officer is available to “resolve all questions concerning conflicts of interests and to work with each interested LPC member to determine the most appropriate resolution in service of the public interests.”
“A case-by-case review of the facts is required to resolve each claim of a potential conflict and the facts will dictate which tool other than disclosure and/or recusal is appropriate,” according to the code.
Decision day is looming.
By Thursday, consultants are expected to present panelists with a portfolio outlining the feasibility of each project, a measure that will likely further narrow their options.
The LPC is required to select final projects by March 20.
“This is the fastest planning initiative we’ve ever done and maybe you will ever do,” said Steve Kearney, lead consultant for Schenectady DRI, told panelists in December.
The panel will next meet on Thursday, March 12 at 6 p.m. at SUNY Schenectady’s Lally Mohawk Room
The state Department of State requires a final plan by April 24.
Projects with potential conflicts of interest
Several Schenectady DRI panelists have proposed projects seeking some of the $10 million in state funding up for grabs:
- Proctors, Schenectady County, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation (DSIC), Rivers Casino & Resort, Schenectady County Metroplex Authority, Discover Schenectady and the City of Schenectady are seeking $550,000 for facilities to strengthen outdoor events, including new lighting equipment and bathrooms.
- DSIC is part of a coalition seeking $60,000 for public art installations around Mohawk Harbor, Gateway Plaza and the Jay Street Marketplace.
- Metroplex is seeking $500,000 for facade improvements.
- Proctors has applied for $200,000 to convert unused space into two 30-seat basement screening rooms, renovations the theater estimates would accommodate 28,000 visitors and 1,000 additional screenings annually.
- Proctors is also seeking $400,000 to purchase, maintain and operate outdoor festival equipment that the Proctors Collaborative believes will provide an additional 40 events annually at Mohawk Harbor, Gateway Plaza and the proposed Jay Street Corridor.
- The City of Schenectady is seeking $6.8 million to fund portions of roughly a dozen projects, including the Jay Street Pedestrian Walkway, the Alco Tunnel Trail and City Hall Square.