Archive for May, 2010

The Comprehensive Plan’s second directive is to rebuild Amsterdam’s economic foundation. Easy enough right? And after we’re done with that, we’ll work on achieving world peace! I’m being sarcastic because the sheer magnitude of the task of turning around a city economy that has been in decline for 70 years and also happens to reside in upstate New York, can make one simply shake their head and walk away. One can look at the political, economic and infrastructure decisions made over the previous decades and point out the mistakes that contributed to our current situation. However if we take a step back we see that our city is like many others in our region that have struggled to adapt to the rise of multi-national corporations and the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs to their overseas plants.

Here’s an excerpt from the Comprehensive Plan that expands on the directive:

Like many former industrial cities in Upstate New York, Amsterdam appears trapped in a downward economic spiral. As industries closed or scaled back their operations, property tax revenues from these facilities were reduced and jobs were lost. The loss of employment opportunities also lead to declining population, reduced home ownership, distressed neighborhoods, and reduced quality of life; furthering erosion of the City’s tax base and placing pressure on the City’s infrastructure and services. Finally, older or poorly maintained infrastructure, diminished services, poorer quality of life, and/or higher taxes limit the City’s ability to attract or retain businesses and residents resulting in further erosion of neighborhoods, further reduction in the tax base and so on – the downward spiral continues. Exacerbating the downward economic spiral have been federal and state policies that have encouraged development away from cities over the last half century. Stopping the downward spiral is not an easy task. At first glance, it appears that the priority must be to focus energy on attracting new industries to, or retaining and expanding existing ones in Amsterdam.

New or expanded businesses will create jobs and increase the City’s tax base (though many of the standard business attraction incentives limit tax base expansion for several years). This is a good strategy, but because economic development incentives are available almost everywhere, there must still be a reason for businesses to come to Amsterdam. High quality of life, that attracts and retains a talented workforce, is a necessary ingredient in today’s business attraction and retention strategies. However, in order to maintain and ultimately improve the City’s urban quality of life, it must reestablish a vibrant downtown, invest in neighborhoods, maintain the City parks and expand recreational opportunities, shore up the school system, etc. This is difficult for the City to accomplish without an increase in the tax base – a classic case of deciding, “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” In reality, Amsterdam cannot focus on one or the other; both sides of the equation will require attention. (Page IV-3)

Next, the plan outlines four areas where Amsterdam faces challenges…

  1. Workforce – Only 12% of our adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher
  2. Technology – Amsterdam lacks a strategic advantage to attract information based companies and professionals.
  3. Quality of Life – Despite some of our nice neighborhoods and parks, Amsterdam does not have a regional reputation for being an attractive place for professionals to relocate to.
  4. Diversity – Our Hispanic community continues to be isolated culturally and economically from the rest of the population.

Then, it presents 9 recommendations…

  1. Create a customer friendly business development process – a major part of this would be to create a single point of contact for new businesses to deal with which will aid them in getting assistance, information, and guide them to the services offered by other agencies such as AIDA or MCIDA.
  2. Establish a pro-active Economic Development Strategy for Amsterdam – in other words, identify what businesses we want to attract and then go after them, not just sit around and wait for them to come to us.
  3. Consolidate Information and Make Improvements to Physical Inventory – in other words, maintain an accurate database of information about all the properties we have to offer businesses, and make as many improvements as we can to what we have so that businesses can move in as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
  4. Place greater emphasis on Education and Workforce Development
  5. Maintain the City’s water and sewer infrastructure and promote this as an economic development resource
  6. Focus on business retention and expansion – here the plan suggests establishing an R&D center to aid existing businesses adopt new technology to help make them more competitive.
  7. Nurture the creation and growth of small businesses in the community
  8. Continue to Diversify the City’s Economic Base – in other words, make sure we have a variety of different types of businesses so that we aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket.
  9. Capitalize on the City’s Diversity

So where do we begin with all of this? Not only are each one of these recommendations major projects in themselves, the plan actually calls for all this to be done simultaneously with working on revitalizing downtown and improving our quality of life.  I think the first thing we must come to terms with is that we need more players in the game than just the local government.  I’ve felt for a while now that the business community needs to step up to take the lead in the area of economic development.

That feeling was strengthened for me just a few weeks ago while talking to a business owner in Saratoga Springs who is part of my networking group.  The subject of revitalization came up and she credited the progress made in her hometown of Ballston Spa in part to the Ballston Spa Professionals Association.  According to their website, the organization  “is a group of businesses and individuals working together to make Ballston Spa a great place to work, live and visit. The association works in conjunction with Village government and other groups to enhance our community.”  Here’s a very informative article about how the association got started and how it has been successful.  We also get a bit of history in this article and learn that Ballston Spa also used to be heavily invested in manufacturing jobs and has suffered in a similar way to Amsterdam. In this article from 1984, we see the early formation of the group and we can see how it was clearly an initiative started by the business community. Another good article about Ballston Spa revitalization can be found here.

Now Ballston Spa has some similarities to Amsterdam, but also has differences. It’s proximity to Saratoga Springs clearly influences it’s culture, and it seems to have targeted tourism and it’s downtown section as it’s main economic focus.  Having it’s historic downtown still intact is a great benefit, and Amsterdam would have to do alot more work in comparison to create something similar. But, I wouldn’t want to see our city solely focused on tourism as our economic engine anyway. The Comprehensive Plan calls for a diversified economy.

The core idea I believe we need to embrace, however, is to see that you don’t have to be an elected official in order to initiate a revitalization project.  I sometimes think that we have become so used to “big government” that we just naturally expect government to fix all our problems.  We sometimes forget that the government exists to serve and protect us.  You don’t need permission or a stamp of approval to start a project.  Coordination with government is only necessary if a project starts to require zoning changes, building permits, infrastructure changes, etc. 

And your project doesn’t have to be a large one either.  I like Flippin’s idea posted in the comments section of the last post…

I view large versus small [projects] not exclusively in dollars but in time and impact: why not find some projects that you can execute within 6 to 12 months that make a difference in their immediate area?

Visible, small, immediate wins generate some momentum to pursue larger, riskier projects.

Wouldn’t it be great to have multiple small groups made up of businesses and individuals working on different projects simultaneously, in coordination with local government?  If everyone is “plugged in” to the same larger plan (ie the Comprehensive Plan), then these projects should, hopefully, collectively make progress toward the larger goals and vision that the plan outlines.

I am hoping that this blog article might get the gears turning in a few people’s heads. It will take some brave souls to step forward who have a personal passion for an idea, the commitment to invest long-term, the skills to put together a team and a feasible plan that people can genuinely get behind.

Now I’ve always believed in the idea that “if you can suggest it, you can do it.”  I do have small project in mind that I believe will address several of the recommendations made by the Comprehensive Plan. In my next post, I will outline my initial idea and hopefully I’ll be able to followup with some of the action steps I take.

In the meantime, what do you think? Should the business community step up to lead Amsterdam’s economic development? Or do you think government is doing the job by itself  just fine?

Marketing The City

Posted: May 12, 2010 in City Marketing

One of the very first objectives the Comprehensive Plan suggests is marketing the city.

Improve Amsterdam’s Image and Identity in the Region
Market Amsterdam effectively to the Capital District region and beyond. Overcome negative perceptions and emphasize the community’s positive attributes, such as: nice neighborhoods, cultural diversity, beautiful parks, great-tasting and abundant water, excellent golf course, and its location as a gateway to the Adirondacks, Saratoga, and other regional destinations, etc. Align the City more closely with the Capital Region. (Page III-3) 

The subject of marketing came to a crossroads recently during city budget negotiations when the position of Mayor Anne Thane’s Confidential Aide (currently filled by Thom Georgia) was put on the chopping block.  According to Thane, eliminating his position would effectively end the work on the city marketing efforts.   

The Amsterdam Recorder ran this editorial , basically stating that 1) The Mayor’s office should not be handling marketing efforts, it should be done by other agencies and 2) the city isn’t ready to be marketed because there are too many problems that need to be fixed first. 

A contrasting view on the city marketing situation was written on the Sassafras Journal blog (posting under the name “Flippin”). He made a strong argument (in his signature sarcastic style of course) that there is no “magical point” at which we can begin to market Amsterdam.  The city has it’s problems but so does every city, there are still good selling points that can be capitalized on.   He restates his recurring point that many of the problems that need fixing in the city require capital that we just don’t have, so unless we start generating some new income, we’ll never get to fix those problems. 

After reading both these views I decided I had some things to say, but first I wanted to get a better idea about what the Mayor’s office has been working on. I had read that there were marketing materials that had been produced, but I could not find them online anyplace. I called the Mayor’s office about it, and they were very happy to provide me with the materials along with a number of other documents detailing the marketing strategy that was being worked on. Reviewing these materials, I was able to get a better sense of the direction the Mayor is going in. 

Now before I dive into some of the details of the marketing plan, I want to try to qualify myself somewhat to give readers an idea of where I am coming from.  I’ve learned a little bit about marketing over the years running my own business and being involved with the marketing efforts of other businesses.  I know that marketing is more than advertising. Marketing involves any methods used by a business to attract new customers as well as retain existing customers. I also know that successful marketing requires an objective assessment of a businesses strengths and weaknesses. A marketing strategy needs to play to the business’s strengths. If a business invests resources marketing in an area where they can’t compete, often that effort goes to waste. In other words, if you want to compete against a “Walmart”, you’d better have the ability and strength to really do it, otherwise you are wasting your time. Most succesful small to medium businesses don’t compete against the “Walmarts” in their market, they find a niche that they can realistically compete in and focus on that area. 

When I first started my business, I was a weak competitor at best. But what I did was leverage the resources I did have to work my way up.  I was focused on a certain segment of the market that was under-served and I built my client base from there.  The services I provided met or exceeded my customers expectations and as a result, positive word of mouth grew my business as much as any form of advertising I used.   

So I am whole heartedly in favor of marketing the city. I do believe we have enough positives that would  persuade people and businesses to move here (I’ll discuss those positives shortly). I certainly understand some people’s discomfort with the idea given the problems that we have with infrastructure, blighted neighborhoods and graffiti.  In fact, I would say that these problems are marketing issues themselves and need to be worked on with equal priority. For instance, regional media coverage of the fire hydrants problem could easily undermine even the best marketing strategy. That is one issue in particular that needs to be fixed now. But bear in mind that other capital district cities such as Schenectady, Albany and Troy are struggling with similar problems. In many cases, particularly in the area of infrastructure, its lack of capital that holds us back. I agree with Flippin’s take that unless we are able to start generating more revenue, our infrastructure problems are probably only going to get worse.  

In regards to the issue of whether the Mayor should be the one to lead the marketing campaign, I would argue that it is.  The Recorder editorial suggests several organizations to do the job – the Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency, the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency, and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Flippin correctly points out that these organizations have their own goals and priorities. I believe that a multi-faceted marketing plan has to be coordinated from a single authority in order to be effective, and the only authority that is going to be able to do that and make Amsterdam it’s #1 priority is the Mayor’s office. However, all these organizations have a vested interest in seeing Amsterdam succeed, so it seems to me that it would still make sense to partner with and coordinate efforts with them.  I am concerned that I don’t see the Chamber more involved with the process. Also, I don’t see why AIDA  couldn’t be brought on board with the vision and then take on the job of marketing to new businesses. Isn’t that their job anyway?

Finally, I’d like to comment on some of the materials and documents I received from the Mayor’s Office.   According to Mayor Thane, her office has used the packets to directly solicit interest from individual developers & state representatives, at real estate trade shows, and will be used at upcoming promotional events with business & industry leaders. The first piece is an extra-large, full color brochure.

This picture shows the inside pages. Basically the marketing message hits three selling points that I think are right on the money. First, as small city, we are a more close-knit community which differentiates us from larger cities (welcoming). Second, we have a good central geographical location (accessible). Third, due to our low property values and abundance of commercial space, it costs less to buy a home or start a business than in surrounding areas (affordable).  These are solid strengths that Amsterdam has and I don’t think it’s ever the wrong time to promote them.

A set of four single sheet case studies profile successful Amsterdam businesses and include positive quotes from the owners.

This picture shows the front cover of the extra-large brochure on the left, and one of the case studies on the right. Other businesses profiled are Eastern Medical Support, Mohawk Lifts and River Ridge Living Center. The testimonials from the business owners make a strong impression.  

Also included in the packet are four single sheets that highlight the areas of education, economic development, tourism and culture, and quality of life. For the most part I think these sheets are good, they definitely show the best sides of Amsterdam. There are two areas, however, that concern me a bit. I’ll explain…

This is an excerpt from the “economic development” page. The text does a good job of highlighting the opportunities for businesses considering moving into the area. However the image is obviously an illustration of what our downtown could look like, not the way it actually is. Now the text starts off talking about the revitalization efforts, and I can see that the picture might fit into that context. However, the very first impression I think a person would get from this page would be that this is what downtown Amsterdam looks like, when of course, it does not.

This is the other image that gave me a little trouble. This is an actual picture of our downtown, but it’s closely cropped to give the distinct impression that the woman is walking down the street, checking out all the great shops and such.  Of course we all know that there are only a handful of shops open on that street, and if someone comes in expecting an experience like walking through downtown Saratoga, they will be very disappointed.

I don’t think it’s self-deprecating or anti-progressive to say that we are not ready to market our downtown. This is one area where I think the critics may have a point. Downtown is definitely not one of our strengths and this really is an area that needs a lot of work before it can become truly competitive.  Revitalizing our downtown is a key part of the Comprehensive Plan, but it clearly indicates a need for a sequential approach in this area.

But before the City is considered as a true bedroom community option, it must improve its urbanism. It cannot compete as a bedroom community for those who desire to live in the suburbs or in a rural environment. It must present itself as a vibrant, urban community with all of the benefits that a small city can possess. This will require that the City’s downtown be reestablished as the heart of Amsterdam, with a variety of uses and activities mixed together at a fine grain. (Page IV-12 – emphasis added)

Alternatively, what I would suggest is that for the “economic development” page, use a picture of one of the many fine business spaces that are available to move into. I would also include mention of the abundance of affordable small office space available in buildings such as the Riverfront Center, Noteworthy Business Center and the Clock Tower.

For the “tourism and culture” page, why not use a photo of one of our parks? The ball field at Shuttleworth Park would certainly make a good impression. And let’s be honest too, if I could pick one word to describe Amsterdam culture, I would choose “sports“.  Seriously, I think we may have more ball fields per capita than any surrounding city. Amsterdamians take their sports very seriously! That may seem a bit “proletariat” to some of our more “cultured” citizens, but so what? I would rather attract sports enthusiasts whose expectations will be met, than attract people looking for a Saratoga Springs atmosphere and feel let down.

Finally, coming back to the issue that prompted the discussion, the elimination of the Mayor’s Confidential Aide position. I’m honestly not sure whether it was the right move or not. If some of the work can be picked up by other staff members, and if other agencies can pick up the ball in certain areas, and if maybe other tasks could be done on a contract basis (maybe by Georgia?), then maybe it was the right decision in light of the budget shortfall. However, if the marketing effort does fall by the wayside because of it, then I think that will truly be a loss. Either way, I think the Mayor’s office would do well to get some of these marketing ideas out to the public so that people can get a picture of what is being worked on as well as provide feedback. Developing a sense of “buy in” from the general public takes extra effort, but I think if more people were on board with the idea, it don’t think it would have been such a quick decision to axe the position.

I know I’ve presented a lot here. Please take time to digest and then share your thoughts and impressions!

  1. I’m looking for commentors who will contribute well thought out responses and add their own innovative ideas to the discussion.
  2. I’m not looking for ranting, raving or emotional venting. There are other blogs out there you can do that on.
  3.  I will be moderating all comments, so please be patient if your comment does not appear immediately.
  4. Comments that contain personal attacks, mockery, or speculation about the motives of others will not be approved.  Threats of any kind will be reported to the authorities immediately.
  5. Respectful disagreement is welcome and encouraged.  Please take the time to qualify your points of disagreement with supporting details.
  6. If you make a comment and someone disagrees with your idea, their disagreement does not erase your original idea. There is no need to answer except to clarify or offer new material.
  7. Whether you use your real name or choose a fictional name, write as if you are sitting in the same room with the person you are responding to, and as if everyone in the world will see your post and know you wrote it!

A Well Rounded City

Posted: May 8, 2010 in Vision

If we are to work together as a community to revitalize our city, it’s going to take a common vision that the majority of our population can believe in and see themselves as a part of. Otherwise, the number of people needed with the passion and  patience to see a long-term plan carried out will not be there. 

I hear many different ideas from people about what they think is the “key” to our rebound.  Some are focused on our housing and quality of life – ie renovating or cleaning up the deteriorating areas of our city, improving our schools, reducing crime, etc. Others are focused on economics – ie attracting or creating new businesses and industries. Still others are enthusiastic about tourism ideas – ie arts and cultural events, shopping and entertainment.   The argument is that growth in one area will lead to growth in the others. Conversely, it can also be argued that weakness in one area hinders growth in all the others. So discussions of this nature usually end up going around in circles.  

If one takes a step back, it’s clear that there is a lot of passion for all these ideas. And, it’s clear that all these ideas are very interrelated. Therefore, any vision for our city must include all three areas.  Where we can work on multiple areas at the same time, we should, and when we can’t – we need to have a sensible plan to work on issues in sequence. Concentration on one area over another will have the effect of disenfranchising large numbers of people, which will end up  hindering, or possibly stalling the overall effort.

The Comprehensive Plan has a good section that covers this:

Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan is about Renewal based on Traditional Values. All communities exist because of economic and social factors. In Amsterdam, the original economic force was waterpower that fueled the development of industry along the Chuctanunda Creek. The City’s social development was based on the influx of people and families from around the world who came to work here. These different ethnic groups retained ties to their separate cultures even while they assimilated and became Americans. Over time, there have been shifts in the economy and social structures throughout Upstate New York and the nation. These transitions are ongoing, and effect all communities. The challenge is to adjust to these transitions, and to reinvest toward the next level of economic and social activity.

Amsterdam has a proud history and strong traditions. The City can build its future based on traditional values – downtown as the heart of the community, vital neighborhoods, diversity and social interaction. It can take steps to enhance its quality of life and to connect to the economy of the 21st Century.

The City of Amsterdam seeks to strengthen its role as a livable city; a great place to live, work, and visit in the Capital Region.

As the original plan concepts were developed, three complimentary strategies, or ways of thinking about the future of the City, were identified:

  1. Bedroom Community
  2. Technology Community
  3. Tourism Community

The qualities necessary to achieve these desired outcomes are not unfamiliar to Amsterdam. At the turn of the last century, Amsterdam had vital neighborhoods (like a bedroom community), was an industrial innovator (a technology community), and its downtown was the center of commerce and culture in the region (a tourism community).  (Page II-3)

The next section of the plan details 7 broad directives that need to be worked on in order to achieve this vision. They are :

  1. Improve Amsterdam’s Image and Identity in the Region
  2. Rebuild Amsterdam’s Economic Foundation
  3. Reestablish Downtown as the Community Center
  4. Stabilize and Strengthen Neighborhoods
  5. Redevelop Old Mill Sites and Improve Connections to Neighborhoods
  6. Enhance Important Gateways to the Community
  7. Create a City Greenway System

My next blog posts will deal with each one of these areas individually. Stay tuned!

The Comprehensive Plan

Posted: May 7, 2010 in Vision

Beginning in 2001 and finishing in 2003, Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan initiative provided us with an unprecedented resource for crafting vision and direction for the city’s revitalization efforts.  The finished product, a 71 page report, along with  241 pages of appendices, provides us with the most well thought out and balanced collection of information and ideas as to how Amsterdam got to its current situation, what our current strengths and weaknesses are, and where we need to go in the future.  The report was put together by The Saratoga Associates in cooperation with a bi-partisan committee of local leaders and residents, and incorporated input from multiple community group discussions. You can download the report here and the appendices here.

Unfortunately, since the plan’s adoption by the Common Council in 2003, the initiative seems to have faded into the background. Very few people know about, much less understand what’s in the plan.  To their credit, our city’s government leaders have made some progress in implementing some of the areas of the plan, but overall, there hasn’t been much success at energizing the whole city around a unified vision for our future. Part of the difficulty lies in that the plan paints mostly in broad strokes. It identifies the directions we need to go in and the areas we need to improve. It even makes some specific suggestions as to what to do first. But it doesn’t tell us exactly how to organize and execute strategies to bring these changes about.  In fact, the plan calls for a standing committee to be established that will update and expand on the original plan on a regular basis. So far this hasn’t been implemented.  In order for the plan to be of any good use to our city, our citizens, business leaders, community leaders and government leaders have to be  informed about and be on board with the plan. Otherwise all the hard work that went into it will go to waste.

Roadblocks To Progress

Posted: May 1, 2010 in Vision

Instead of zeroing in on specific issues, I want to express some of the larger, underlying issues that I believe are keeping us back…

1. Partisanship
This is a big one which is pervasive througout local, state and national politics.  It’s always been with us ever since our country was founded, but it seems in recent decades it’s escalated into near dysfunction.  In Amsterdam, it’s been said that party affiliation doesn’t matter so much. Obviously, the national issues that the two parties are divided over aren’t a factor on a local level. But my observation is that there are always two “teams” at play, the fault lines just run through different issues. 

What we need is for more moderates within each party to stand up for common  principles and work together rather than worrying about which “team” gets credit for making a score.

2. Leaders don’t invest enough time in building consensus
Very few leaders seem to take the time to build widespread grassroots support for their big ideas. It’s usually easier to gamble and play politics to try to push an idea through. The thing is, building consensus is hard and takes time. It takes doing some homework and presenting credible evidence, to constituants and to other leaders, demonstrating how their idea will actually work and benefit everyone. More than that, it takes listening respectfully to critics and trying to win them over by finding common ground, and even possibly – and this is somewhat uheard of  – by actually adjusting their plans or compromising to take into account opposing opinions.

What we need are leaders who take the time to build consensus with their constituents and fellow leaders, so that a good idea has a strong majority behind it when it comes time to implement it.

3. Lack of a clear starting point and direction
Seems like most discussions about how to revitalize Amsterdam end up going around in circles.  When someone has an idea, it usually falls into one of these categories: developing residential areas, improving our schools, attracting new businesses, or creating some sort of tourist attraction.  Usually the person makes a case that starting in their chosen area will eventually encourage improvements in the others. Problem is, no one seems to agree on what area to focus on first.  Every individual has their own area of interest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time and resources to work on all areas simultaneously.

We need a comprehensive strategy, understood by and supported by a majority of residents, business leaders and elected officials, which outlines a logical sequence as to what areas are worked on and when.

Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan, completed in 2003 is our best starting point. I’ll deal with this in a later post.

4. Wishful Thinking
We don’t have a problem coming up with creative ideas in Amsterdam, I’ve heard many. It’s fun sometimes to brainstorm and imagine all sorts of public improvements, businesses, attractions, etc. The problem is, rarely does anyone have the conviction and the understanding to even take a single first step in making any of these dreams a reality. In the end, I’m more depressed than encouraged because it’s obvious that none of the ideas will ever come to fruition.

And we need leaders with creative ideas , the courage and thoughtfulness to take initial steps and the long term steadfastness to see the idea through to it’s completion.

5. Transplanting Ideas
It’s easy to look at a successful idea in another city and think “why can’t we do that in Amsterdam?”  There’s certainly alot of value in studying how other places have acheived success, but it’s also a recipe for failure to simply transplant an idea from one place to another without understanding the unique culture, political system and resources involved.  Many good ideas that I have heard simply don’t seem feasible because they would require people, skills, or a culture that we don’t have.

We need to develop ideas that are based on the resources and strengths that our city currently has.  Ideas used in other cities need to be de-constructed first to see the underlying mechanisms in order to see whether it would work in Amsterdam or not.