Archive for the ‘Vision’ Category

compass

If you haven’t already heard, I’ve been working with a great team of people in the past few months to form a new online newspaper called the Mohawk Valley Compass. I’ll be working mostly behind the scenes – maintaining the web site, handling advertising and other administrative tasks. But I will also be writing a weekly “column.” It made sense to me keep the “Pars Nova” name as it still has meaning to me and sets the tone for what I intend to continue to write about – New ideas for new direction in Amsterdam NY. All future Pars Nova posts will be on The Compass rather than on this site.

I realize I have spent alot of energy lately criticizing the established mainstream media. I believe that if you see a problem, and that problem is important enough, at some point you have to do more than just complain, you’ve got to step up and help fix the problem. I’ve always advocated that idea in regards to the problems we face as a city, and  for me, helping to start The Compass is my own way of being true to that principal.

So please take a look at my latest Pars Nova piece on The Compass titled “Amsterdam’s future:city or suburb?”  While you are there – check out the other two well written opinion pieces that were posted today. Sign up for email updates, like the FB page or follow on Twitter.  Leave your brilliant and expertly written comments as you would here. I’m looking forward to discussing the important issues with all of you in 2014 on the Mohawk Valley Compass!

amsterdam2000I didn’t know Daniel DeRossi very well, but when I heard of his passing, it reminded me of this old newspaper clipping that I have saved in my photo album for many years.

So I thought it would be nice to share this memory of him as well as my 5th grade friends from back in 1986. I think the picture speaks for itself.

Here’s to a man who believed in and worked for the future of Amsterdam.

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?

Thanks to everyone who submitted responses to the S.W.O.T. analysis thread. I’ve tried to look for some common ground among these posts, and I see a couple of areas where people’s comments overlap. One of the issues that came up in both the strengths and weaknesses category was our housing stock. I’ve always agreed with the idea that our neighborhoods are our most important asset, and it seems that most people do too. I also think that most would also agree that the average condition of our city’s homes is declining. I think the disagreements emerge when we start talking about what to do about it.

For a change of pace, I’ve decided to boil down some of the various strategies that I’ve picked up on through past blog discussions and put them into a  few polls. Feel free to comment on the various strategies and suggest new ones if you wish.

Here’s some stats on the housing situation in Amsterdam from the Comprehensive Plan. They are from 2000, but I think they can at least give us a little perspective on the situation.

Total residential parcels: 5,310
Single family residential parcels: 2,777
Multiple family residential parcels: 2,533
Total housing units: 9,277
Owner occupied housing units: 4,107
Renter occupied housing units: 3,876
Vacant: 1,294

Also,  a lot has written recently on the issue of buying a home vs renting a home. Here’s a good article (with good counter-points in the comments) which shows how home ownership rates and consumer sentiment toward home ownership have both been falling. I think it’s worth considering that even if the economy begins to improve, we may be seeing a cultural shift away from settling down permanently, and more toward remaining mobile. However, we’ve also discussed that owner occupied, single family homes are needed to stabilize our neighborhoods.  This new trend may have to be factored in as we discuss the best strategy for Amsterdam’s housing situation.

By request, I’ve created an open topic where anyone may post their own S.W.O.T. analysis of the City of Amsterdam. Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the concept of S.W.O.T. by looking at the graphic below. Please try to be as objective as possible. Let’s see what ideas are out there!

Big A for Amsterdam

Posted: November 25, 2011 in Economic Development, Vision
Tags: ,

I’d like to take a good look at an initiative (dubbed “Big A”) for getting Amsterdam growing again that was recently proposed on Flippin’ Amsterdam. I would urge anyone who holds out any hope for revitalization in Amsterdam to read through the entire post and consider it. The ideas behind the proposal are ones that have all been discussed before or have been adopted in other cities; however I think this is somewhat of a breakthrough for Flippin to combine everything into a cohesive, actionable plan.

The idea starts with the formation of a public/private corporation (“Big A”) which will be responsible for the economic revitalization of Amsterdam. What Big A will do is fund projects in five key areas:

  1. Preserve existing housing stock and drive residential development in the city for the 20-34 crowd.
  2.  Develop the Southside as a residential and commercial mixed-use destination
  3.  Invest in alternative energy as a revenue driver for the city and attract renewable energy start-ups (leverage the locks on the Mohawk)
  4.  Create a digital arts and engineering (focus on alternative energy) charter middle school
  5.  Establish an incubator center around digital arts, alternative energy and nanotech

 

Overall, I believe these proposals are right on target to make Amsterdam economically competitive again. They build on Amsterdam’s strengths and address the weaknesses. They also fit well with the direction of the NY Tech Valley initiative and the trends in the global economy.

The $3-$5 million price tag that Flippin estimates, which a majority is proposed to be funded by public bonding (borrowing), will no doubt scare some people. But Flippin rightly points out that there is usually no debate when the city bonds for things like demolition of old buildings or other projects that are understood to be “essential”. I believe investing in our economic future is essential. If the furnace in a house breaks down in the middle of winter, the homeowner will no doubt borrow money to fix it rather than risk freezing to death. Amsterdam’s economic furnace is broken down and we are facing an economic winter.

An important aspect of this plan is accountability, and I think Flippin’s ideas for this will go a long way in helping people to trust this initiative. First, he proposes that the agency has a 5 year charter. I’m not sure if that means the agency will only exist for five years, or only use public funds for 5 years, but either way, that’s an important aspect because it avoids creating a new government dinosaur (ie like AIDA) . The other control he suggests is providing public funding in yearly increments ($500,000 to $1 million per year) based on performance, all of which makes perfect sense.

Frankly, the greatest challenge in this whole proposal is selling it to the people of Amsterdam such that it wins an approval in a public referendum. The past mayoral election shows a city evenly divided on the future direction of the city. Flippin advocates “destroying and disrupting” the current thinking on economic growth and the institutions (ie AIDA) that are charged with stimulating economic growth. While I completely agree that our thinking has to change radically, the militaristic analogy, when extended reveals a problem. It’s usually understood that an offensive effort requires an overwhelming advantage in order to overrun a defending foe. That advantage is simply not there. I believe it will require a whole lot of persuasion to rally our residents around this plan. The past behavior of simply labeling people as “against change” or other less than flattering names will simply backfire again. The case for advancing this plan must be presented in a positive, persuasive way, such that a solid majority of voters believe and trust the initiative. If it’s not accepted at first, then it needs to be presented again in a different way and many more times if necessary until it finally takes hold.

I hope to post more comments on the individual proposals soon!

The Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council, along with other regional councils across the state,  have submitted their final strategic plans which are essentially applications for an initial 40 million dollars of  NY state economic development funding.

The economic councils are part of a new strategy initiated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to manage economic development ideas and the disbursement of state economic funding. From the Regional Economic Development Councils web site –

The Regional Council approach is a fundamental departure from New York’s traditional economic development approach, which has been top-down and State-directed. The Governor’s vision is that the State will rely on regional expertise to identify and prioritize significant projects that would maximize the State’s return on investment.

You can get more information about the initiative at http://nyworks.ny.gov/, where you can view the Mohawk Valley’s plan as well as all the other region’s plans.

The Mohawk Independent has a nice article outlining some of the “Priority Projects” that will compete for a slice of the initial 40 million dollar funding. The list includes two businesses opportunities located in Montgomery County. Please check out the MI article for some details on those projects.

In addition to county-specific projects, there are also six regional projects which Amsterdam should benefit from. Here are brief descriptions of each program, quoted from the plan:

  1. The Mohawk Valley Regional Revolving Loan Fund (MVRRLF) is proposed to be capitalized at $7.5 million over a five-year period. The MMVRRLF is expected to leverage another $31 million and will target loans to 50 businesses in the six-county region to support the creation and retention of an estimated 750 jobs.
  1. Create the Mohawk Valley Microenterprise Grant Fund, which is designed to stimulate small business and entrepreneurial small business start ups to help capture the needs of younger businesses and turn good ideas into early seed capital businesses. This proposed fund would be capitalized at $2.5 million with $200,000 being capitalized as a priority project and the balance to be funded through the 2012 CFA process. The Microenterprise Fund would seed 100 young and early stage businesses and leverage at least $2.5 million in other funds. The Microenterprise fund would be designed to create/retain 250 jobs.
  1. Priority project funding of $150,000 (with $50,000 to be dedicated for the start-up activities/feasibility activities) would be targeted for exploring the creation of Mohawk Valley Ventures, a Seed Capital-Venture Capital Fund that would be capitalized with state and private funds in 2013.
  2. A Mohawk Valley Sandbox Program would be created to nurture students with a talent for innovation and creativity. The students would be mentored by volunteers from industry and academia who would encourage students to experiment with entrepreneurial techniques as part of their coursework. A Start-up fund of $100,000 is earmarked to help speed the development of this program.
  3. The MVREDC strategy also recommends creation of the Mohawk Valley Waterfront Development Opportunity Fund, (2.5 million initial funding request) a multi-year program to support waterfront development activities in key parts of the region, including Amsterdam’s Waterfront Heritage Way, the Rome Harbor Waterfront Village Initiative, and Utica’s Harbor Point. (2.5 million initial funding request)
  4. Create the Mohawk Valley Brownfield Opportunity Development Fund that is a major regional initiative to help implement the Brownfield Opportunity Area plans that would affect eleven BOA districts within the Mohawk Valley consisting of nearly 8,000 acres. A key thrust of the MVREDC Strategic Plan is to help the region reclaim and re-program former industrial sites. This $75 million effort is included in the Region’s five-year strategy and would be launched with $2 million in priority project funds and $6 million in CFA funding for 2012. The MVREDC would work with local communities to complete BOA strategies, undertake engineering and remedial clean up activates, and begin implementation of BOA strategies that are linked with viable reuse strategies. The MVREDC believes that the reclamation of the region’s former industrial core area is integral with

It’s important to note that with most of these projects, there is an initial funding request (ie “priority funding request”),  with additional funds to be requested through the Economic Transformation Area Program which was created to assist communities affected by closures of the state’s correctional and juvenile justice facilities, or through a Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) which taps an additional $1 billion fund set up by NY State.

Each of the priority projects, as well as additional, lower priority “Regionally Significant Projects”, fits into one of six strategies (quoted from the plan, with my additional clarification in italics)-

  • Enhance Regional Concentrations to stimulate regional growth from within, and to add to that growth by attracting new technologies and industries to the Mohawk Valley Region. (in other words,  help develop existing businesses and use them to attract new businesses)
  • Align the region’s workforce and educational systems to help grow and produce the workforce and talent base needed to support an economy increasingly centered around innovation and entrepreneurialism;
  • Enhance the region’s innovation enabling infrastructure by growing connections and nurturing ideas that will prompt new business activity and invigorate the region’s economy; (in other words, provide grants, loans, etc for new business ideas)
  • Increase the region’s spatial efficiency by working to ensure the organization of the region’s physical assets reduces and minimizes costs for businesses, inhabitants and their governments, while contributing to energy efficiency and sustainability… We will also look for ways to improve the Region’s transportation and infrastructure systems through the expansion of broadband connectivity to underserved and unserved communities; the promotion of Brownfield redevelopment and where feasible the adaptive reuse of vacant facilities; the reclamation of the region’s waterfront assets for community and economic development; and investment in downtowns and Main Street corridors; and
  • Strengthen government and civic effectiveness by promoting and acting to create leaner and more efficient government; by ensuring that civic institutions nurture a business climate that will promote entrepreneurship; incorporating the ideas (in other words, come up with better public policies and also look at consolidation opportunities).

Overall, I’m intrigued by the projects in this plan. Unlike other plans, such as Amsterdam’s  Comprehensive Plan and the Fulton/Montgomery Regional plan, some of the ideas in this plan will, without a doubt, be funded and go forward. There’s more of a sense that immediate progress will be made here.

On the other hand, the grouping of Amsterdam with this particular council along with the cities of Utica and Rome presents us with a serious problem. Being only a 25 minute drive away from Malta, home of the Global Foundries chip plant, and 35 minutes away from Albany, Amsterdam is clearly in a position to benefit from the Tech Valley initiative in the Capital Region. While there are references to the Global Foundries supply chain in the plan, the term “TechValley” is nowhere to be found. By being grouped in this council, we are losing a valuable seat at the discussion table when it comes to collaboration amongst Tech Valley movers and shakers.

Furthermore, Amsterdam has a much stronger historical and cultural connection to the Capital Region area than to the Utica/Rome area, which is over an hour driving time in distance away from us. Indeed, reading through the Capital Region’s plan, you see a much more developed sense of regional collaboration, especially around the Tech Valley initiative, in comparison to the Mohawk Valley plan. I see little sense of shared vision between Amsterdam and the Utica/Rome area.

Unfortunately, it’s yet another hill that Amsterdam will have to climb in its difficult journey to define its role in the emerging NY State economy.