Hudson received a $10 million state grant Aug. 1 to improve an area encompassing the Hudson River waterfront east to Second Street. The application for the Downtown Revitalization Initiative included a list of potential projects, and the city now has until February to hash out a final list of projects and send them in for state approval.
The city government selected a 23-member Local Planning Committee (LPC) consisting of community stakeholders for the effort, who are working with state representatives and planners from the private firm Stantec Consulting Services. There are two remaining public meetings to gather additional input from residents.
This is not the first time the grant was handed out. Last year, the state distributed $100 million to ten different cities during the grant’s initial year. Though Hudson applied, the grant for the Capital District went to Glens Falls.
As a way of showing how the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) process works, I examined how the grant worked in Glens Falls and Middletown, the winner of the Round 1 DRI grant for the Mid-Hudson Region.
After reading hundreds of pages of documents relating to the DRI in both cities and speaking to those involved in the process, some commonalities stood out.
The initial project list submitted to the state to apply for the grant is only a vague outline. The final list submitted to the state by Glens Falls after the LPC process — the Strategic Investment Plan — looks vastly different from the initial list. In fact, only five of the 17 projects on the application made it to the Strategic Investment Plan, and seven new projects were added, according to DRI documents.
Middletown did not submit a list of projects when applying for the grant, and so the projects in its Strategic Investment Plan are purely a result of the LPC process.
Both cities submitted millions of dollars more in projects than could be funded through the grant, knowing not all the projects would be approved by the state. As several people I interviewed said, it’s state money, and the state has the final say of how it will be spent.
The final state-approved projects in the cities include small grants to existing businesses, the development of public parks and parking, improvements to public trails, developing new retail space to attract businesses, and generally renovating the accessibility and aesthetics of the neighborhoods.
It became obvious in examining the cities’ DRIs that the funds are not meant to completely renovate the selected neighborhoods, but are supposed to give a little push to further develop areas already undergoing substantial improvements.
People were generally effusive in their praise of how the DRI process worked in Middletown and Glens Falls, giving high marks to the degree of public input, the engagement by the state, and the speed and thoroughness at which the coordinating planning firm worked.
Middletown is a city of 27,000 in the middle, as the name suggests, of Orange County, NY. The city was a major railroad hub in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has since suffered from the common Upstate New York woe of de-industrialization.
Demographically, Middletown is a young city with a plurality of Latino residents. Its poverty rate is about 20 percent, higher than the national average, but lower than Hudson’s, according to census data.
Middletown chose an existing area — its Business Improvement District — as the neighborhood to benefit from the DRI.
Juan Alavos, the proprietor of The Taco Factory in Downtown Middletown and a member of the city’s LPC, gave me a bit of local history.
“Back in the early 1900s, Middletown was a booming little city,” he said. “The railroad was very predominant here and the economy was booming…in the long run, once the railroad was taken out, it became kind of — ‘what do we do with this town?’ — it was getting run down, nobody was investing in it, (and) low-and-behold, it became a kind of desolate town.”
“Ten-20 years ago, Middletown had a bad connotation — ‘oh, you don’t want to go there, you don’t want to visit there, because there might be violence, there might be shady people’ — but now that perspective has changed completely,” he continued.
The last decade has seen substantial investment in the city, especially the Business Improvement District. The investments resulted in renovating the 232-acre former Middletown State Psychiatric Hospital into the Middletown Community Campus, the conversion of shuttered department stores into a supermarket and a boutique hotel, and the opening of two breweries, a skate park, a transportation center, and an indoor soccer facility, according to the Middletown DRI Application.
Alavos said much of the money awarded in the DRI was spent to improve how people perceived and experienced Middletown.
“When you change the mentality of people, when you change when people perceive something, then they’re more inclined to visit, they’re more inclined to invest in it, and it makes everyone more prosperous,” he said.
The six final projects selected by the state were the “Rail Trail Commons,” essentially the combination of a hiking trail and a mall, wherein a path is extended through a corridor of available retail space; a loan/grant program to improve building facades in the neighborhood; aesthetic, “green” improvements to public parking lots; streetscape improvements; the further development of a vacant lot into a park; and branding for the city, including a series of digital informational kiosks.
Avalos said he was especially pleased with the façade program, saying it improved the look of the city and would help integrate different neighborhoods.
“The community was not that integrated because of these run-down buildings,” he said. “You would walk to one side of town and the buildings were dilapidated, and it was kind of scary going there.”
Avalos said he was pleased with how the LPC functioned. He voted with other LPC members during meetings on which of the projects they would like to see go forward, and the votes were combined with the community input gathered by BFJ, the planning firm tasked with coordinating the process.
Middletown LPC Co-Chairman Jonathan Drapkin is also the President and CEO of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. I read a column he penned about gentrification, in which he argues investments should balance the need for new municipal revenue with possibly displacing original residents. Thinking of Hudson, I asked him if the Middletown DRI achieved that balance.
“At this point, Middletown is making great strides, but it’s still a city that has opportunities for really all income levels,” he said. “It is not a city that has been gentrified by any means.”
Bringing new business into the neighborhood and making the area generally more attractive can help existing businesses and residents, he said.
“[Middletown is] developing, it has some nice restaurants, but there are still lots of areas that are on the way up, and you need more people with disposable income to ensure that businesses can be successful,” he added.
He pointed to the importance of façade improvements, wayfinding signage, and improved parking to bring new business into the neighborhood and lead new customers to existing businesses.
Though the state had the final say over which of the projects submitted in the Strategic Investment Plan will be awarded money through the DRI, Drapkin said the city was happy with the selections.
“In the end, the state — like they do with [other grants] or anything else — it is there money, so they do get to play a role and say, ‘yeah, we like this one a little bit better, and we like this one a little bit less,’ but it was coming off a list of priorities that was set by the locality,” he said. “The locality was not upset at all by what was funded.”
Jerry Kleiner, Middletown’s Second Ward alderman, said at every LPC meeting, the consultants from BFJ would ask the LPC about upcoming community events, then attend the events to gather public opinion about potential projects.
“It’s a great technique, which I would highly recommend to Hudson,” he said.
He expressed particular enthusiasm about the “Rail Trail Commons” — the combination mall-hiking trail — crediting Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano with the idea.
The city had been having trouble figuring out to do with the vacant building, formerly a Woolworth’s Department Store, for years, but will now be using the DRI money to “cut a path right through the middle of it,” leading walkers on the Heritage Trail through a corridor of retail shops, Kleiner said.
The city-owned building will have space for four retail shops, and a “Race for Space” competition will be set up to see what businesses would occupy the space, according to the Middletown Strategic Investment Plan.
The competition would award up to $20,000 in rent reduction and refurbishing costs to winning businesses, according to the investment plan.
As for the projects that didn’t make the state’s final cut, Kleiner said they had been pre-approved by the state for when state grants become available in the future.
Kleiner agreed with Drapkin that the improvements in the neighborhood would attract new businesses and enrich existing ones.
Middletown doesn’t have an art gallery, excluding a space at the Middletown Community Campus, something Kleiner mentioned with regret. It was his hope the improvements to the city would one day attract such venues to his city.
Glens Falls won the DRI grant for the Capital District in 2016.
Like Middletown, Glens Falls chose a centralized neighborhood — the AWE district, standing for Arts, Wellness and Entertainment — with some dilapidation and vacancies for the DRI, but one that has seen substantial private and public investment in recent years.
Also like Middletown, it presented millions of dollars more projects in its Strategic Investment Plan than the $9.7 million allotted ($300,000 of the $10 million is reserved for the consulting firm). Projects in the Strategic Investment Plan not selected by the state include the development of a children’s museum and the granting of money to a cheese factory to expand operations.
The project allotted the most money was a food hub that combines a year-round farmer’s market with a USDA kitchen holding cooking classes and an adjacent parking garage, said Economic/Community Development Director for Glens Falls Ed Bartholomew.
The project will be constructed on the grounds of the current farmer’s market, a May-to-October affair held on a pavilion that attracts 1,500-2,000 shoppers each Saturday, he added.
Will Siegel-Sawma, the treasurer of the Glens Falls Co-op, which had to close its storefront in the fall, said there aren’t fresh food options for those living in downtown Glens Falls.
“Without the co-op, there is no grocery store in downtown…I believe at this point, the closest one would be a good couple miles away from downtown, so for people that are walking, it’s tough,” he said.
The only accessible fresh food option for those living downtown, a Price Chopper, closed last summer, he added.
The DRI money will also be used to create a “Downtown Revitalization Initiative Fund,” a revolving loan and grant program used to assist business owners in improving their facades and to assist nonprofits in capital improvement projects, among other initiatives, according to the governor’s office.
A central intersection in the AWE district ringed with vacant properties also gets money in the plan, according to the governor’s office. Glens Fall’s Strategic Investment Plan calls for two of the four parcels to be redeveloped into mixed-use properties, and the other two to be turned into a small park and a parking lot.
DRI money is also being used to assist the SUNY Adirondack Culinary School in relocating to downtown Glens Falls; improving streetscapes; creating a public arts trail; beginning the process of creating broadband wireless service for downtown residents; and creating another public park on two vacant lots.
The arts trail will include digital informational kiosks, signs and banners to lead people through various points downtown, Bartholomew said.
Most of these projects are only partially funded by the DRI and are matched by private or local public investment.
Glens Falls DRI was coordinated by the same consulting firm as Middletown’s — BFJ Planning — and Ed Bartholomew said the firm and the state reached out to the community during the farmer’s market and a balloon festival, as well as conducting an online survey on potential projects.
Projects were re-prioritized or dropped based on whether the city and planners though they could get funding through other grants in the future, Bartholomew said.
Hudson’s next meeting for public input in the DRI process is Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. at John L. Edwards School.