The Fulton/Montgomery County Regional Business Plan

Posted: August 11, 2011 in Vision
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Any type of revitalization initiative has to start with a solid plan. Putting ideas down on paper forces a planner to think things through, communicate the vision clearly and provides a basis for holding our elected officials accountable for making progress toward their goals. That’s why I was excited to read about the Fulton and Montgomery County Regional Business Plan today in the Recorder. I was eager to see how this plan would compare to Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan and what effects this may have on our city. The Recorder’s coverage provides a good summary of the plan, but I wanted to know more of the details. An email request made to Ken Rose, director of Planning and Economic Development for Montgomery County, got me a speedy reply with the full text of the plan, which can be downloaded here.

The plan starts off with an introduction, background information, statistics on the various industrial parks and large businesses in the two counties. Next, it gets into a “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” analysis, a summary of the main goals, and then lists specific initiatives and objectives to reach those goals.

Those main goals are:

  • Educate and train the region’s students for the 21st century workforce.
  • Develop large and small shovel-ready sites.
  • Market the region.
  • Improve the region’s quality of life.
  • Extend water, sewer, utilities and broadband service throughout the region.
  • Lower the local property tax burden in the region

After my first read-through of the plan, I would say that overall, I believe the goals are the right ones and are similar to many of the main goals stated in the Amsterdam Comp. Plan. I particularly like the fact that all the objectives have target dates attached to them, and many of the tasks strike me as specific and reachable. My concern, however, is that it is not yet clear how well the  Board of Supervisors from either county buy into the plan, and it will depend on these governing bodies as to whether these plans go forward or not.

Some further thoughts on certain items in the plan…

Education
In order to “educate and train the region’s students for the 21st century workforce”, the plan suggests developing a partnership between local school districts, government and local CEO’s to help develop educational initiatives. A centerpiece of this partnership would be an Annual Education and Economic Development Summit. This type of initiative was tried by Mayor Thane in the past, but it got little traction. Perhaps with the help of county leadership, this effort can be revived.

Funding
This is the issue that usually puts the brakes on many good ideas, and I’m concerned the issue hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by the plan. In order to fund a marketing plan for the region, the plan suggests…

1) A Hotel tax with 100% of tax proceeds dedicated to implementing marketing the Regional Marketing Plan.
2) Each County considers dedicating a portion of its sales tax revenues to implementing the Regional Marketing Plan (similar to how The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority is funded).
3) Others.

Hmmm … others…

It is hard for me to believe that idea #2 would not lead to higher sales tax. And idea #1 is simply a new tax. At the same time, the plan rightly points out that the high property taxes on businesses are deterrents to economic growth. But which is worse, high sales taxes or high property taxes?

The strategy for lowering the property taxes boils down to 1) Getting NY State to agree to ease up on it’s mandates and 2) Consolidating services.

I think idea #1 is good, however I’m skeptical as to whether it can really be accomplished or not. The plan suggests coming up with a report to be sent to state officials, but beyond that, it’s hard for me to see how political leverage can be brought to bear on the situation. The biggest mandate in the budget is Medicaid and Governor Cuomo has talked about reforming it. If he can actually tame that giant, then that would hopefully lead to significant savings for counties.

I have always been in favor of consolidating services as long as it can be proven that the same level of service can be maintained at a lower cost. I don’t doubt that there areas where this can happen. I’ve heard lots of talk about consolidation, but I have yet to see any actual numbers or plans.  My concern is that the idea of consolidation sounds like a great idea on the surface, but it is going to be really difficult to come up with workable strategies that deliver the same services for less money.

Luxury Apartments
I may have to run, because Flippin is probably going to flip out on me for this one.

 From the plan…

…local CEO’s advise that the Region’s lack of a diverse housing stock is a negative quality of life issue. The predominant housing type in this Region is single-family homes. While its availability and low cost is an asset, the lack of alternate forms of housing is a quality of life liability. There are few options other than single family housing for young professionals. This market tends to enjoy luxury apartments, condos, etc. rather than houses.

(…ducks large object thown at him)

While this statement indicates that local CEO’s believe luxury apartments could attract young professionals, it is also stated that…

“The Region’s social life and cultural opportunities do not favorably compare to those available in surrounding Saratoga and Albany Counties. For these reasons, many executives and upper management of local businesses live outside the Region.”

In other words, its jobs, nightlife, and alternative housing that has to be present in order to bring young (and old) professionals in.  To me, that says those who are building small numbers of luxury apartments are on the right track, as demand for these types of housing is present, but low because of the other two factors.

There’s plenty more to comment on, but I think that’s enough for now. Thinking about the coming mayoral election, I think many of the ideas in this plan give credence to several of Mayor Thane’s initiatives over the past four years.  It seems that between the Amsterdam Comp Plan and this plan, similar goals and objectives are emerging. For me, the candidates for Mayor, Common Council, and Board of Supervisors are going to need to get specific as how they are going to work toward these goals and objectives.

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Comments
  1. robert purtell says:

    I think that any plan, wether it is here or New York City will take time to develop. Small steps make great strides. Patience and cooperation from the local flock are needed and turning a deaf ear to the naysayers would be a help.

    I don’t believe that people value the importance of the school districts in developing a work force, the work force by the way does not have to be rocket scientists, but should instill good work ethics along with good math and science skills, even if they are basics. We have to do away with the feelings that I do not have any kids in school, so why do I have to pay school taxes.

    Consolidation is a step in the right direction, but it should be noted that there is a possibility that it may be a poitical nightmare that may take years to adjust to, politically and socially.

    Yes we need newer apartments as a stepping stone for the future generations, but the question is what do we do with the older housing stock, do we continue to let it slip into the abyss? do we tear down the old and make way for the new? The town of amsterdam has new apartments online, how will that affect the housing stock? will it make way for more subsidised housing?
    I do not know the answers, but am always ready to show my support.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Good thoughts Robert. Getting cooperation from the “local flock” is one area where I think our leaders can do better. As we’ve seen, it’s not enough just to have a good idea. I think our leaders have to spend more time earning trust and getting buy-in from the public in order to get their ideas off the ground. This requires communication and persuasion. If our electorate was more united, I think all the political wrangling would lessen and we’d be debating about the best way to do project xyz, rather than whether we should do project xyz or not.

      • flippinamsterdam says:

        I hate to sound like a broken record or for the younger readers a corrupt MP3 , but the overall issue centers on housing stock as Robert points out. I think we need a multi-prong strategy that addresses both existing housing stock and developing new housing stock. If we look at existing stock, our only tool seems to be a bulldozer. What about housing stock that is marginal or borderline — housing that doesn’t qualify for wrecking yet is succumbing to blight and at risk of becoming demolition bait? Why can’t we develop strategies to build up or salvage declining areas? How can we widen our solid residential areas? How can we entice development of new housing stock?

        At the same time, we have zero new development of housing stock. Sure, I’m decrying the demolition of Chalmers but even with all the risks in the project, it is hard to deny that it would represent a physical and psychological investment in our city. Markets are not purely rational and rely upon psychology of the markets as well– it seems evident that an investment and development of brand new loft apartments in our city would signal to other investors, businesses, consumers that something new is at play here. We would get some “buzz”.Instead what do we get– a paved parking lot so we can entice — I have no idea what but it seems to be geared to commercial / retail. In other words, what do our actions signal to outsiders to entice them to live or work here? Nothing that I can see.

        If commercial/retail is the target, then let me pose a question to those proponents — who are the consumers of that target? if you say it will bring in outside people with money to spend then you are talking about a similar audience to that which would find the Chalmers lofts attractive. We then have a perfectly circular and illogical argument.

        I’m not going to throw anything other than the idea that we need residential development and growth. I don’t believe that you build restaurants, clubs and shopping first without some consumer base first. According to this logic, we should expect restaurants to sprout up prior to a clientele to support that restaurant. I think Robert would agree that cash flow scenarios for a restaurant with an expectation of customers 3 to 5 years from now once those customers commit to moving here seems destined for bankruptcy.

        Fundamentally the challenge lies upon convincing our fair city that growth is possible and desirable. Until then, it is all moot; it is moving chairs on the Titanic or choose alternate metaphors for wholly ineffectual strategies.

        Welcome back Tim.

  2. Tim and Flippin,

    Have either of you guys followed some of the “addition by subtraction” and urban agriculture plans taking place in Flint and Detroit? There are some interesting ideas being forwarded there.

    This is a 2009 piece by the New York Times on Flint:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/business/22flint.html

    A couple of articles on what’s happening in Detroit:
    http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Gardening/2010/0428/Detroit-leads-the-way-in-urban-farming

    http://www.matternetwork.com/2011/8/urban-farming-in-detroit.cfm

    I’ve been checking it out for awhile now because the entire concept is interesting to me. Obviously, the urban decay is much more severe out there than it is here, but I wonder if Amsterdam and other upstate cities suffering from the SAME PROBLEMS (it would be nice if some of the local rabble-rousers would realize there is a world outside the 12010) should give these ideas a shot.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Oh I think Flip will love your first article, you know how he is all for  demolishing entire city blocks : ) Actually I remember the Recorder running an article or editorial back in 2009 that talked about this idea to which Flippin resonded with this post which led to me and Flippin duking it out using spreadsheets (good times, good times!)

      Flippin showed if you took, via emminent domain, an entire street of blighted houses and demolished them, then replaced them with a smaller number of single family homes, you would end up with a considerable revenue drop and the investment simply would not pay off even in the long run. That’s because (sadly) even slumlords pay taxes and the way Amsterdam taxes are set up, the more units in a building, the more user fees on those buildings are collected. On the other hand, I think I showed that if you used selective demolition of already foreclosed homes (ie already not producing tax revenue), then you can certainly start seeing a long term revenue increase.

      I think the answer to whether demolishing an entire city block would be a net financial gain for the city depends on how many homes in that block are abandoned or able to be foreclosed on because of deliquent taxes. I think you would need a very high percentage to make it benefit the city. Now Amsterdam has a good number of vacant homes, but my impression is that it is nothing compared to the problem Detroit has.

      Now urban farming is a nice idea. I’d love to see community gardens in Amsterdam. If a city like Detroit ends up with space that they just can’t find any other income generating use for, then sure, why not let people farm on it? But I doubt that deliberately tearing down a large building to use as farmland is going to make sense economically. Unless doing so creates such a “buzz” (as Flippin talked about in his comment above), that large numbers of urban farmers start migrating to Amsterdam.

  3. flippinamsterdam says:

    Tim,

    Good times, indeed.

    I’ve been noodling on the links Charlie provided and while I’m not in favor of applying that approach, I do see some related concepts which may prove useful. I don’t think the numbers for mass scale demo work unless they are subsidized in some way and even then, I’m pretty sure that it’s a risky endeavor. That said, are there concepts for reuse or repurposing that would allow us to innovate out of our problems? Probably. Urban farming is one example that could be piloted with no or little cost–we have more than enough parking lots to convert to a pilot program. I’m sure there are many other innovative ideas out there that we could apply. I think this may be Charlie’s bigger point: good ideas exist outside of the 12010, maybe we should try some.

    I think one approach that I keep coming back to centers on micro versus macro– in other words, let’s attack block by block, bottom-up with smaller initiatives versus a single, large initiative. I think building some successes, even small, starts to build some momentum and likely gets people to buyin to broader changes. I’ll have to revisit the pilot concept so that inspires a post…

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