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Foss: Redirect Schenectady DRI funds to help businesses with impact of coronavirus

Foss: Redirect Schenectady DRI funds to help businesses with impact of coronavirus

Redirect DRI funds to help with coronavirus
Foss: Redirect Schenectady DRI funds to help businesses with impact of coronavirus
Downtown Schenectady
Photographer: File photo

I knew things were going to change quickly.

But I don’t think I realized just how quickly.

In a matter of days, our schools, colleges, libraries, houses of worship, museums, government agencies and arts institutions have made the difficult — and absolutely necessary — decision to shut down. Events have been canceled. So have sports.

The idea is to slow the spread of coronavirus by keeping people from gathering together.

If it works, fewer people will die from a virus health experts believe is at least 10 times deadlier than seasonal flu, and those sickened by it will be better cared for because the health care system isn’t stretched to the breaking point.

There’s no question that this is hard, that it will get harder, and that we are going to feel the effects of this massive societal slowdown for a long time.

Local businesses will surely suffer as people cut back on eating out and shopping and stay close to home.

Arts organizations and other entertainment venues will likely see a decline in activity. Businesses that do well during sports and other big events have lost a significant amount of revenue.

We should be thinking of ways to help our local business and arts organizations get through this.

One idea: The state should allow communities that have received $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants — a group that includes Schenectady, Albany and Amsterdam — to use the funds as a direct economic stimulus for businesses and organizations experiencing big drops in revenue due to coronavirus.

Schenectady has yet to award its DRI money, but many of the projects proposed for funding seem especially frivolous in light of the global pandemic now causing the world to stop in its tracks.

I’d rather see some or even all of the money used to help hard-hit downtown businesses than to fund a fancy new aquatic center or a new screening room at Proctors.

As a recent New York Times article noted, “If the new coronavirus causes workers to take sick days; customers to stay home; and officials to order quarantines, it will be hard on all American companies. For small businesses, though, it could be catastrophic.”

We don’t want coronavirus to destroy our small business community.

Another potential source of economic stimulus: The regional economic development council awards announced every December.

Last year, the Capital Region received $84.1 million for a variety of projects. Perhaps this year, the REDC funds could be used to help local businesses deal with the economic earthquake caused by COVID-19.

I’ve been heartened by the number of institutions, organizations and individuals stepping up and canceling events even though they know it will hurt their bottom line.

We need to make it easier for these people to get through the tough times ahead, and to help the businesses that, for whatever reason, do remain open.

By redirecting our economic development money, we can lessen the impact of coronavirus on the businesses and organizations that are the backbone of our communities.

It’s a bold step, and requires a shift in thinking about what economic development really means.

But here’s the thing: Getting through COVID-19 requires creative thinking — a willingness to do things in new and different ways.

Initiatives that once seemed important and essential might need to shelved and replaced with projects better suited to the strange new moment we find ourselves in.

And while none of this is easy, I’m confident we can meet the challenge.

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