Archive for the ‘Economic Development’ Category

uturnWhile the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam struggle to maintain their housing stock and downtown areas, Dustin Swanger, president of FMCC announced on Thursday a 12 million dollar plan to essentially build a new “downtown” on campus consisting of new housing construction and retail space.

As a graduate of FMCC, I am thrilled that the college is growing. The need for more student housing is obvious and I appreciate Swanger’s initiative, but I believe his vision is mis-guided. If he is willing to borrow $12 million dollars on behalf of the public to provide housing and amenities to students, he should invest that money into the surrounding cities that need the influx of resources to remain viable.

The location of FMCC is problematic of course. In other college areas such as Schenectady and Albany, college campuses (such as Union and Saint Rose) are integrated into the fabric of the community. However the short commute between any of the cities to the FMCC campus could easily be alleviated with a well thought out shuttle system.

I would submit that students, especially those coming from other countries, would have a much more meaningful and authentic experience living in a real local community with history and culture rather than an artificially created one such as proposed by Swanger. Our region needs our best and brightest students to return to the area once they’ve graduated. I believe that students who form friendships and bonds with the people in their community are more likely to do that. But if students are essentially isolated on campus, how likely is that to happen?

I would propose this – build three smaller housing and retail developments each in the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam. Remodel existing downtown buildings to suit student housing requirements and to accommodate new shops and stores that cater to student’s needs. This would be a much needed boost for our downtowns and would give students a better experience than living in an isolated development out in the middle of nowhere.

I would also remind readers that you do have a say in this. The college is funded by the public and the public has the right and responsibility to ensure that how the college operates is beneficial to the students and the region. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You can have a voice via your elected officials or by emailing Dustin Swanger directly at dustin.swanger@fmcc.suny.edu. In fact, if you agree with this position, why not use the “email” button below and forward this to him right now 🙂

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The publisher and editors at The Recorder – Kevin McClary, Kevin Mattison and Charlie Kraebel – are apparently ignorant of the definition of “Public Benefit Corporation.” In yet another scathing editorial about the mural situation released on Thursday, September 19, 2013, they assert:

The project has come to a grinding halt after Mayor Ann Thane and a few other city residents stepped in and demanded — even though they don’t own the building and have absolutely no say over it — that a mural on the second floor be preserved, claiming it has historic significance. (emphasis added)

That statement is at best a gross distortion.  No matter where you stand on this particular issue, you should not believe for a second that the public does not have any say in what AIDA does. Here are some facts:

AIDA was commissioned in 1973 as a Public Benefit Corporation.  The section of NY State law that recognizes AIDA reads:

For the benefit of the city of Amsterdam and the inhabitants thereof, an industrial development agency, to be known as the CITY OF AMSTERDAM INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY, is hereby established for the accomplishment of any or all of the purposes specified in title one of article eighteen-A of this chapter...Its members shall be appointed by the governing body of the city of Amsterdam. –  Source

Because AIDA is supposed to operate for the benefit of the people of the City of Amsterdam, board members of AIDA are appointed by the Common Council. That way, they are held accountable for the decisions they make.  Yes, AIDA has the authority to make the final decision on this matter, not the mayor. But as a citizen of the City of Amsterdam, whether you think the mural should be saved or not, you do absolutely have every right to have your say on this matter just as you do on any other matter of public policy. And the Common Council, as your elected representatives, should take everyone’s opinions into consideration when it comes to appointing new AIDA board members in the future.

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©iStock.com/Carol Gering

A couple of weeks ago, Fulton and Montgomery county economic development groups brought in the founder of J.M. Mullis – a project location specialist company – to tour the counties and give advice.

The press conference, as reported in The Recorder on September 07, 2013 , was a general guilt-tripping of cities and towns to be more “cooperative” in making deals for economic growth. The Recorder also followed up with an editorial that echoed the same sentiment.

Here’s the thing you need to remember – if you take a look at the types of businesses that Mullis is talking about, it’s really only one kind – BIG. He’s talking about businesses that employ 300-500 people, taking up anywhere from 200-300 acres of land, with 60-90 acres being “too small”.

Absent from this conversation are any ideas pertaining to small business development or downtown revitalization. It’s obviously not what this particular guy is into, and that’s fine. But I have yet to hear much of anything else from Montgomery county over the past few years. So for me, it’s just more of the same.

I have mixed feelings about big businesses, and I think that you should too. What big businesses give, they can also take away. Amsterdam’s current state is essentially due to big businesses coming in and building things up, and then big businesses moving away leaving their dilapidated buildings behind..

We all ought to think for a moment – what would be better – one big business moving to the area providing 500 jobs, or 10 medium-sized businesses moving in, each employing 50 people? Which situation would be more stable and sustainable?

If you stop and think about it – if you live in the city of Johnstown, Gloversville or Amsterdam, we already have everything we need to attract small to medium-sized businesses. We have the infrastructure (water, sewer, space) as well as the potential to develop an urban culture to attract young entrepreneurs. The towns have the space for the big businesses, but they lack the water and sewer infrastructure. And that’s why they need the cities to “cooperate” and extend their services.

Personally, I think we can do both. If deals can be worked out between cities and towns to bring in large businesses, then great. But for city residents, it’s important to remember that big businesses aren’t the only option for us, despite what you might hear from “regional” minded officials or experts.

A couple more points to consider…

First, here’s a dramatic illustration in a recent article from Better Cities and Towns which shows how low and medium rise buildings (of which our local cities have plenty of) can potentially generate anywhere from 10 to 100 times more tax yield per acre than your average “big box” development (ie Walmart and such).

Second, many news outlets have been reporting on statistics released by the US Census indicating that for the first time since the 1920’s urban growth has outpaced suburban growth. This is kind of a big deal. You can read analysis at a number of news sites, such as these…

Cities Outpace Suburbs in Growth (Wall Street Journal)
The End of the Suburbs (Time)

And home values seem to following the trend….

Urban Home Values Are Rising Faster Than Suburban Ones (The Atlantic Cities)

I will definitely explore some of the reasons behind these trends down the road, but I’m hoping this at least helps you see that our cities have far more going for them than what many would have us believe. If you’ve made an investment in living in a city, there is hope beyond that offered by big land hungry businesses. We don’t have to listen to a blaming and shaming if we decide that a deal with a neighboring town isn’t in our best interest. We have many more cards in our hands than we think!

In reading about the progress of Amsterdam’s pedestrian bridge over the Mohawk River, I was a little skeptical about the attendance estimates of at least 30,000 per year cited in the Maintenance and Economic Impact report for the project. But recently, a co-worker told me about the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY and it’s reported 500,000 annual visitors.

I had not heard of the bridge before, but after taking a look at the walkway’s web site (which mentions the 500K per year statistic) and seeing some of the pictures of the scenery, I thought it might be fun to take the family on a road trip and see if Poughkeepsie’s “Bridge to Nowhere” lived up to the hype.

You can click through the photos and read the captions to see how the trip went…

So here’s my take –

Poughkeepsie’s Walkway Over the Hudson shows that yes, lots of people will in fact travel to a bridge simply to walk over it and enjoy the view. As it is now, there isn’t much to do on either side of Poughkeepsie’s bridge, save for a few ice cream or refreshment stands, so the people you see walking it are there for scenery alone.  The Mohawk River will not provide quite as grand scenery as the Hudson, however the view will still be quite nice.

As far a numbers go for the Poughkeepsie bridge, I’m having a hard time believing the 500K visitors per year statistic (maybe they had that when the bridge opened four years ago.)  But if I guestimate an average of 1000 people per day over the course of 200 days, then 200K per year seems a reasonable number. So if we get even 15% of that traffic, then 30K per year for Amsterdam’s bridge doesn’t seem out of line.

And I think our bridge will actually have a couple of advantages over Poughkeepsie’s. For one, it will be shorter; it won’t take 1-2 hours to cross both directions, which may appeal to some people. Secondly, there will be actual grass and trees on the bridge which will make it nice to spend time sitting while enjoying the scenery. On Poughkeepsie’s bridge, it’s all concrete; you can stop and sit on benches for a while, but generally the idea is to keep moving.

Looking further down the road, I think that once the bridge is connected to Riverlink and Main St, it will be an even more attractive destination. If you can park one place on a Saturday afternoon, walk the bridge, maybe go shopping (one day?), get dinner and then walk to a show at Riverlink, that will certainly be worth travelling an hour to spend the day here. And with the addition of a decent hotel, it will also certainly make Amsterdam an attractive over-night stop for people travelling north to the Adirondacks.

I’ve been critical of the public process (or lack thereof) by which this project has come about. But I think at this point, the wheels are irreversibly in motion and it’s time to stop complaining about it and just get behind it because there is really no other credible plan to develop the waterfront. This project has the potential to put more money in local business’s cash registers as well as more tax dollars in city coffers which can be put toward infrastructure improvement. And just as importantly, the project will improve the quality of life for those living here, helping to shore up those all-important property values.

Now if you want to comment on this, please let’s not re-hash the old arguments. And please do not ask why we can’t redirect this money to fix infrastructure. The question has been answered hundreds of times – it’s state law, it can’t be changed. I might add, however, that it’s my understanding that state money is coming down the pipe for neighborhood improvements in the East End and the Reid Hill area. So it’s all getting done – eventually.

So anyway, let’s discuss the future. Do you think the apparent success of Poughkeepsie’s pedestrian bridge is a good indicator of what we can expect in Amsterdam?

It has always bothered me when I hear people complaining about the taxes in Amsterdam. It’s not that I don’t know NY State is one of the highest taxed states in the nation, which causes most large businesses to avoid us like the plague.  It’s also not that I like paying taxes or that I don’t wish my taxes were lower. It’s just that I’ve always understood Amsterdam to be a very affordable place to live in comparison to surrounding areas, considering both property taxes and home prices combined.

So I decided to do a little more research to see if my hunches were correct. I took data on median home prices and median property taxes in various localities (and one from Texas just for good measure) from city-data.com. I calculated monthly mortgages using the same interest rates and down payment values (based on a typical FHA mortgage, less PMI.)  Take a look at the chart below and tell me what you think…

Selected home ownership costs
(Click to enlarge)

Area_Home_Ownership_Prices Source: city-data.com
(Click to enlarge)

What really baffles me is how much people talk about how high our tax rate is. But it’s easy to see on the chart that a lower tax rate doesn’t necessarily mean you will pay less taxes and it almost always means you will pay more to purchase your home.

If you are in Amsterdam and move to Saratoga, an area which boasts one of the lowest tax rates in the state, you will still end up paying more in taxes each month.  If you move to Broadalbin, which certainly has lower monthly taxes, you will still probably pay more for your house, which overall will still make it slightly more expensive to live there than in Amsterdam.  If you move to the Town of Amsterdam (ie Fort Johnson) you will save money, but only about $80/month.  I think it’s worth noting, however, that there are trade-offs in rural areas (such as having to take care of your own water well and septic tank. )

So here’s my take: even with a high tax rate, Amsterdam is actually a very reasonable place to buy a home in comparison to other local areas. For me, a low tax rate doesn’t do me any good if I can’t afford the mortgage or the higher tax payments. When someone says they are moving out of Amsterdam because of the taxes, they are either woefully misinformed, or there’s really another reason. I believe that when a person with an unsatisfactory view of Amsterdam moves to another local area, it’s probably because they are looking for what they consider a better quality of life – a better looking neighborhood, higher ranked schools, etc, and they are usually ready to pay more for it.

If monthly out-of-pocket home ownership expenses were really the most important factor for people, then why wouldn’t Gloversville be a booming economic center rather than Saratoga Springs?

And that’s why it bothers me when some politicians say their most important goal is lowering taxes. Sure  – lower my taxes by $50 to $100 per month – that would make me happy! But given what we now know, do you really think that is going to attract more people to our city? Lowering taxes will not improve our blight situation; it will not improve our schools. In fact, drastic cuts could actually worsen the situation.

If we are serious about our city’s revitalization, yes we need to keep taxes in check, but our efforts should be squarely focused on improving our neighborhoods and schools and attracting new businesses. Concentrating on these aspects will ensure that Amsterdam is economically viable in the years to come, and is really the only long-term strategy that will keep taxes stable.

Amsterdam County NYIt’s not such a silly idea if you think about it. Does a county define its cities or do cities define their county?

What spurred me to start thinking about this question recently was a survey sent to me from the Montgomery County Business Development Center. The survey’s noble goal was to find a strong, unified marketing message for the entire county.  As I began to think about the positive aspects of the county, I started thinking about the City of Amsterdam, and the various towns and villages. I began to think how each area of the county has it’s own characteristics, history and culture. For me, coming up with one single message to capture the identity of Montgomery County is impossible unless it’s completely watered down like…

Do business with Montgomery County – we’re mostly along the Mohawk River!

To me the true identity of Montgomery County is comprised of the identities of its city, towns and villages. Cultural identities begin within communities where people decide to join together to live, work and recreate. It’s within these population centers that the marketable characteristics start to take shape.

The borders of Montgomery County, quite frankly, don’t mean much, they are just arbitrary boundaries drawn for administrative and tax purposes. So in short, I believe the best marketing strategy for the county is to highlight the diversity of its communities, which doesn’t really lend itself to single slogan or catch-phrase.

But you’re probably still wondering why I’m suggesting calling the county, “Amsterdam” right? Well in my opinion, it’s the Amsterdam region that has the best shot at actually defining the identity of the region in a way that attracts new businesses to the county – which is the ultimate goal of the MCBDC. In my estimation, between the City of Amsterdam and the Town of Amsterdam, the area leads the county in terms of economic activity, population and culture.

And I believe that it’s the City out of any other place in the county, that  has the best chance of actually attracting high-tech start-up companies and entrepreneurs, due to it’s abundance of low-cost office and warehouse space, low-cost housing and fledgling arts community. It’s proximity to Saratoga’s Global Foundries and Albany’s TechValley initiatives are also factors.

If you look around at our neighboring counties such as Schenectady, Saratoga and Albany, it’s easy to see that successful cities have defined the counties that bear their namesake, rather than the other way around. Just take a look at the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce’s  “elevator pitch”…

Few areas of the country offer better lifestyles than Schenectady County. Our thriving downtown is a center for the arts and home to legendary Proctors Theatre. Just minutes from New York’s Capital in Albany, the majestic Adirondack Mountains and Saratoga Springs, Schenectady County boasts a diversity of culture and lifestyle, superior educational institutions and an array of shopping, dining and entertainment for all!

As you can see, their marketing is entirely dependent on the identity of the City of Schenectady. Similarly, if you search for info about Saratoga, you will find that the culture of Saratoga Springs dominates the marketing message for the area.

Concentrating marketing efforts on one section of a county does not necessarily leave the rest of the county out in the cold. In both Saratoga and Schenectady Counties, many of the surrounding towns and villages such as Ballston Spa or Scotia/Glenville, benefit from their proximity to the cities. Such could be the case in Montgomery County.

Now in all seriousness, I don’t think it’s probable that the county will change it’s name. However, I think it’s worth considering that the Amsterdam area should be the “flag-ship” so to speak of a county-wide marketing campaign. One example of this would be Oneida County’s effort, which uses “Utica, Rome, Verona and Slyvan Beach” as their main marketing tag line and focus.

While some might criticize this idea as showing favoritism, to me it’s simply a matter of putting our limited resources into investments that have the best chance of paying off, for the common good of the entire county. The Amsterdam area is the county’s money beets.  It’s just good marketing and good marketing leads to good business.

I’m glad to hear that the position of Director of Community and Economic Development has been filled and that there is unified support amongst the Mayor and the Council for Robert von Hasseln to do the job. I think it’s a potentially big step in reviving our city’s economy and culture.

The one thing that still concerns me  is that a list of specific, measurable goals for the position has not yet been made public. Back during the budget debates in June, there was an understanding of sorts between the Council and the Mayor that the position would be evaluated within a year and continued based on it’s effectiveness*. However without any clear, mutually agreed upon goals, then it’s likely to come down to a battle of opinions again when budget time comes around next year.

Right now there seems to be a genuinely positive vibe on this subject between the Council and Mayor.  With the appointment of  von Hasseln, I think now is the opportune time to establish specific targets for this position. That way, the decision to continue or not next year can be made on a rational basis (wouldn’t that be refreshing!)

Additionally, I think that taxpayers need to see a tangible return on their investment in this position, even if it’s a small one. Many people today are skeptical (with good reason) about government spending because of the out of controls debts our national and state governments are racking up. I think voters are going to need to see some good results here before we support additional city-government spending to stimulate Amsterdam’s economy.

About a month ago I asked Mayor Ann Thane for some details about the new Director of Community and Economic Development position. In response, she provided me with her finalized, expanded vision for the position. I’ve included a pdf version of the vision here. I think the overall vision is a good one, it describes in mostly broad strokes the range of activities that the CEDD will be responsible for. Along with this, Mayor Thane explained that the specific 1 year goals for the position were still being determined and she could use some help in that area.

So with that in mind, I’ll offer my own suggestions for 1 year goals for the CEDD…

  1. Directly assist in the formation or re-location of at least 2 small businesses in Amsterdam
  2. Present a draft five year plan for specific economic development projects that will foster small business growth. This plan should specifically address how Amsterdam will integrate with and benefit from the emerging regional economy, most importantly considering the Global Foundries plant and NY’s TechValley initiative.
  3. Have at least the beginning structure of a web-accessible database that catalogs all Amsterdam properties available for business development (both for sale or rent).
  1. Produce a written document that describes the structure, leadership roles, and decision making process for the Neighborhood Watch, Neighborhood Association, and any other community organization associated with City Hall. Those of us who are active and supportive of these groups are still often left scratching our heads over these issues and I believe the confusion has hampered wider participation and growth.

It’s a tall order, and I certainly don’t think that 100% completion of all these goals should determine whether van Hasseln passes or fails.  There’s actually only 9 months left before the budget process begins again, and we have to understand that it takes a while for a person to settle into a new role. But I think that along with successfully completing the day-to-day administrative tasks outlined by the Mayor, these would be good goals to target.

Let’s hear some other ideas for appropriate one year goals for the CEDD. I’d don’t want to debate whether the position should have been approved or not, that decision has already passed. But rather, what results would you like to see that would justify the money spent?

*“A’dam budget passes” by Rebecca Webster, Amsterdam Recorder, Wednesday, June 20, 2012