On May 19th the State of New York approved funding for Oneonta’s controversial downtown revitalization initiative (DRI) plan. We oppose the plan because it incorrectly focuses on new construction projects which will damage our downtown in multiple ways. To add insult to injury, many millions in NY state tax payer dollars will be wasted in the process.
One objective of this web site is to make the revitalization of Oneonta’s historic Main Street 1st priority. Another objective is to keep people informed.
We are a group of downtown business owners, property owners, and concerned citizens who have come together to voice common concerns and goals regarding the future of our downtown. We want our city, county, and state government to recognize that we (the stakeholders) are entitled to a strong voice in the revitalization of our downtown. Since taxpayer money is funding these revitalization efforts, public support is necessary and required!
Many downtown businesses are struggling to compete with big box stores and restaurants on Southside. Vacant store fronts in our downtown are a common sight. We have many vacancies to fill and neglected historic buildings to rehabilitate before we start building new (see photo’s in the ‘vacancies‘ section). Many more buildings that are not vacant are underutilized – Foothills PAC is one example.
Oneonta’s DRI plan needs to be reevaluated so it leverages our unique strengths, like our historic buildings and small-town atmosphere. We oppose the new construction projects that are being proposed on Market Street and at the Westcott Lot. These proposed projects move us in the wrong direction, and they will undermine the very goal of making our Main Street thrive. Expanding our downtown to Market Street will likely draw foot traffic and business away from Main Street thereby creating more vacancies. Our objective is to make Main Street a destination that local people and tourists want to visit. Our downtown has been slowly losing its historic charm. Many tourists and visitors think our downtown is unappealing and uninviting. With work we can make our downtown a destination that more people will be drawn to. Our downtown has uniqueness and a sense of community that we can build upon. It will take time, but by working together we can revitalize our Main Street and be proud of it. We have many talented and enthusiastic people in our community who, if called upon, can assist with our revitalization efforts to help achieve our objective.
(updated May 2017)
The list of DRI projects approved by the state in May 2017 can be found here. For further details Oneonta’s final DRI proposal to the state can be found here (completed by Consultant/Stantec). The new construction projects would be funded by a combination of public and private money. The top projects that are part of Oneonta’s downtown revitalization plan include the following:
Westcott Parking Lot Development ($3,200,000 requested from DRI + private funds)
The Westcott Lot is a 50 car parking lot located between Ruffino’s and the DMV office. Per the state’s list of approved projects (reference), a 4-story building containing 27 to 30 apartments and 4,000-6,000 sq. ft. of retail space would be built over this parking lot. Parking would be located under the structure; however, the property would no longer be owned by the city. Possibly all or most of the parking in the Westcott lot would be used by the new residents living in the apartments above. It is unclear where the public would park when visiting this area of downtown. The loss of parking in the Westcott lot would be damaging to businesses in that section of downtown. In response to criticism the Mayor has stated that a parking study will be completed.
Food and Beverage Innovation Center (formerly known as the Food Hub) – This ‘Innovation Center’ project has been described as the ‘linchpin’ for Oneonta’s DRI plan. Funding for this project would come from various state grants such as a CFA grant ($3 million) and a Restore NY grant ($477,915). State funding from other sources appear to be available as well (i.e. NYC HCR). The proposed building site is on the corner of Market Street and Chestnut Street. The Restore NY grant was acquired to demolish an existing building (owned by the Twelve Tribes) to make room for the new building. The existing building is listed on the National Historic Register as part of the Oneonta Downtown Historic District. Since state grants are available this historic building should be restored (not demolished). The existing building is already occupied and is actively used as a warehouse. The use of eminent domain to seize this warehouse is very unpopular. More on this later.
The Food and Beverage Innovation Center concept was developed by the Otsego County IDA (Otsego Now). Throughout 2016 Otsego Now’s plan referred to this proposed project as a ‘food hub’. Otsego Now secured state grants in late 2016 to fund the construction of the food hub. Then a ‘Feasibility Analysis’ dated January 2017 appeared to almost derail this project and as a result Otsego Now had to drop the ‘food hub’ name. Among other things, this feasibility analysis states “the subject property would not work as an aggregation and distribution center”. Contrary to what some local farmers have asked for, this Innovation Center will not be a co-packing or aggregation facility. Undeterred by the set-back Otsego Now changed the projects’s ‘scope and uses’. The new ‘scope and uses’ can be found here. It is unclear what companies will use this Innovation Center’s services. There is a lot of concern that the proposed Innovation Center will simply not work as planned. The Foothills PAC across the street is also in the business of renting event rooms and conference rooms. The demand to rent these spaces is very limited. In the ‘comments’ section please see email that was sent from Foothills Board President to Otsego Now.
The Daily Star reported the following on January 24th which is still accurate today: “Otsego Now’s study includes a preferred proposal to build a six-story, 87,778 sq. ft. building that houses the Innovation Center on the first and second floors. The first floor would have retail space and a commercial kitchen, the proposal said, and the second floor would have a demonstration kitchen, conference rooms, and a training center for programs offered by Otsego Now”. This quote is summary of a section in the Feasibility Analysis. Non-student apartments would be on the third through sixth floors (a combination of market rate apartments and affordable housing). The residents of this building will be expected to park in the parking garage across the street. In addition, the Green Earth would lose it’s parking lot currently located on-site at the Twelve Tribes warehouse.
Few people in the Oneonta community realize how large this 6-story building will be. In January the building’s ‘preferred’ proposed size was increased. At 87,778 sq. ft., it will have far more square footage than any of our existing downtown buildings. It will have about twice the square footage as the Clarion Hotel. It will have about the same square footage as Nader Towers, which is a 9-story building. If the proposed building’s footprint was square the dimensions would be 121’x121′ – larger then the existing warehouse footprint that is there now. The building would would not taper or narrow on upper floors.
The Otsego County IDA (Otsego Now) is pursuing eminent domain to seize the Twelve Tribes warehouse in order to build the Food and Beverage Innovation Center building. It appears that the reason Otsego Now initiated eminent domain proceedings was to qualify for the Restore NY state grant. A public hearing took place on January 26th and there were many critics present who objected to the use of eminent domain (article). It is clear that the Oneonta community does not support eminent domain for this controversial project. If the eminent domain process is allowed to proceed we will set a dangerous precedent. The question will be: Who’s next?
Oneonta’s Bar Neighborhood
Apartments at the six-story Food and Beverage Innovation Center – Why are we proposing to have families and professionals live in the busy student night life Water Street/Market Street neighborhood (and without private parking)?
This past December, student landlords Bryan Shaughnessy (owner of 20-22 Market St) and Joe Vallette (owner of 10 Market St) attempted to persuade the Mayor and Otsego Now that building housing for non-students in the middle of a busy student night life ‘bar neighborhood’ is a bad idea. They emphasized that the chosen location (Twelve Tribes warehouse) is wrong because it is surrounded by bars and student housing. They added that this area is a desirable location for students to reside, however, it is not a desirable area for non-students. Unfortunately, their efforts did not change anything and they were told that planning was already well underway.
Bryan and Joe rent to all students. Their tenants understand that packs of college kids will be strolling around in the streets bouncing between bars and being loud at late night hours. Water Street is like our version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The intersection of Water Street and Chestnut Street is probably the epicenter of all student night life. Most notably, in late August and September there literally will be thousands of students that will walk through this area on a given weekend night. Many of these students are intoxicated at some level. The future non-students who move into the new 6-story building will call on our police force to try to dampen the activity and noise. As a result, the police will have added responsibility. Cracking down on the late night student activity will just cause this activity to be transferred elsewhere. We all know that the late night noise is not welcome on Main Street or in residential areas. We need to be realistic about our plan. We have almost 7,500 students, and they want to go out and be social from 10pm-2am. Currently, in this ‘bar neighborhood’ no one will complain when packs of college kids yell or sing in the streets at 12 am, 1 am or 2 am. Let’s not create new problems for ourselves.
New Transit Hub and Parking Garage Renovation ($2,500,000 requested from DRI + private)
The plan proposes exterior renovations to the parking garage. The plan also proposes a ‘transit hub’ along the south side. There is limited information on both of these items. It is unclear what is in store for the parking garage. Just like the Westcott Lot, the Parking Garage is also city owned property which eliminates the need to purchase private property for a DRI development project. During the DRI planning process a seriously considered option was to remove some of the parking garage along Chestnut Street in order to make room for new retail and new apartments (see page 11). It appears this Chestnut Street/Parking Garage development project will likely not happen.
Parking Garage & Parking Needs
The two proposed structures (Westcott Lot and Innovation Center) have so far been planned without concern over future parking issues. Overall the DRI plan calls for the removal of existing parking, while simultaneously increasing the need for parking. No additional parking is being proposed to accommodate the parking requirements of the new residents of these new buildings.
The proposed DRI plan will put many new demands on our parking garage. This includes the following: (1) all parking needs of the proposed 87,778 sq. ft. innovation center (2) make up for the loss of public parking at the Westcott lot (3) make up for the loss of parking at the Twelve Tribes warehouse for Green Earth (4) make up for the loss of parking on Market Street (for curb extensions) and (5) make up for loss of parking in front of Foothills due to new sidewalks and streetscape.
During the DRI planning process there was an unfounded belief among some that our parking garage is currently too large for us. Here are a few times when the parking garage is currently at or near capacity: (1) during parades/events on Main Street (Grand and Glorious Garage sale, OH Fest, etc.), (2) big events at Foothills, and (3) during snowstorms since cars need to be off city streets if there is more than 3” of snow.
If we do have some extra space in the parking garage, we should change the parking signs so they are less strict. We should allow people to park for 24 hours at a time on the unpopular lower level. By making this change, it will move some cars out of other city parking lots and off city streets.
Main Street Upper Floor Housing Support ($2,000,000 requested from DRI + private)
The DRI plan lists addresses of eight potential Main Street buildings to receive these funds. These funds are for upper floor renovations. With the exception of the upper floor at 250-256 Main Street all of these buildings on the list are already occupied. Even though this $2,000,000 will do little to resolve downtown’s long-term vacancy issues, it does sound encouraging that local people may be receiving these funds to assist with their building renovations. As we move forward problems with dispersing this $2,000,000 may develop. The question will be ‘Who gets what?’ And who decides? We need to be careful with this. The DRI plan states: “The proposed terms of the project include grants of up to 30% of renovation costs and a cap of $300,000”.
Housing Follows Jobs
It has been repeatedly stated in the DRI meetings and other public events that housing follows jobs (not the opposite). Our DRI plan is backwards. We don’t want to risk creating a glut of apartments which will act as a weight on Oneonta’s already depressed real estate market. People have no reason to move to Oneonta. Otsego Now has been reporting that the Oneonta railyard redevelopment project will bring jobs. However, there was no timeframe mentioned indicating when jobs would come here. It may take many years if it ever happens. In response to criticism over the proposed new apartments Mayor Herzig has stated a housing study will be completed.
Otsego Now – needs to represent the public’s interests!
The Otsego County IDA (Otsego Now) is a government backed agency whose primary mission is to create jobs. Otsego Now claims they will be creating new jobs by building the Innovation Center and other proposed downtown buildings. Otsego Now may succeed in creating some jobs at the Innovation Center, however, this will be at the expense of other competing businesses. Unfortunately, Otsego Now appears to be only interested in new construction projects. Why can’t we look at rehabilitating our empty or neglected historic buildings before we build new? Otsego Now’s vision for our downtown’s future needs to be questioned. Recently, some of our Otsego county representatives have worked to try to make changes at Otsego Now (article).
The easier path for our local government is to build on city owned property (Westcott Lot and the Parking Garage) versus having to get a separate state grant to buy private property.
Downtown Stakeholders – many afraid to speak out
The proposed DRI plan is unpopular among downtown business owners and property owners. Many have concerns, however, they keep quiet out of fear over backlash. It is unfortunate that people feel they cannot voice their opinions in regards to how their tax money will be used in their own community. Downtown merchants fear that if they show opposition there may be repercussions. Even with the fear of losing business, a number of downtown merchants have participated and shown their opposition. Some have taken a leadership role and helped collect 146 names on our petition. These merchants have asked that their names not be used publicly.
The Mayor ‘in Denial’ said: “It’s not US versus THEM” (the public support requirement)
On February 15th an event was hosted by a group that opposed the proposed DRI plan. Approximately 130 people attended the event which was held at the Foothills. See video here. Between 15 to 20 people from the public spoke out, however, only Mayor Herzig spoke in favor of the DRI plan that night.
The Mayor has been ‘in denial’ about the severity and impact of objections being raised. For those of us who spend time speaking with downtown stakeholders and other involved community members it is clear that our DRI plan does not meet the state’s public support requirement. As a result of not having public support there has been fighting and tension over our DRI plan. How did we get our community in this terrible situation?
The State of New York set up very clear guidelines for this DRI grant that are designed to prevent communities from fighting among themselves (reference). Here are a few quotes: “The [DRI Steering Committee] will be particularly responsible for ensuring that the priorities and interests of the community are reflected in the planning process and the resulting recommendations.” In addition it states: “The [DRI Steering Committee], consultant teams and state planners will seek input from all stakeholders in the community including municipal government, key employers and institutions, residents, business owners, stakeholder groups and organizations, and the general public. The objective will be to ensure that all stakeholders have ample opportunity to know and understand the DRI process and its intended outcomes; to comment on the study as it progresses; to have their concerns and ideas be heard; and to contribute to building a consensus about the vision for the Downtown and other outcomes, culminating in a locally supported DRI Strategic Plan”
The New York State web site also states that “Property owners, local developers, and realtors” should be a part of the DRI steering committee (reference). In Oneonta it seems that steps were taken to specifically exclude this group from the steering committee. Property owners, local developers, and realtors would have been able to offer great value if they had been included on the Steering Committee or given a voice at the table.
Out of the seventeen people on the committee, only one person (Wayne Carrington) has any real personal stake in downtown Oneonta. Most of these people work elsewhere and/or are not self-employed.
The names of our Steering Committee (aka Local Planning Committee) can be found on the first page of Stantec’s final proposal to the state (here). For those of us who attended the daytime DRI public meetings it was clear who the driving force was behind this committee’s decisions.
The DRI Steering Committee Vote for the DRI Plan
It was evident from the DRI meetings that the people on the DRI steering committee were under a lot pressure from both the Mayor and the State to approve the DRI plan. Committee members were made to understand that if they voted against the plan that Oneonta may lose the $10 million grant and it would be their fault. We know Barbara Ann Heegan (Otsego County Chamber of Commerce CEO), who is on this committee, refused to vote. Barbara did the right thing and refused to fall in line obediently behind those in power. This community owes a big THANK YOU to Barbara for her devotion to this community and bravery to raise objection.
Oneonta’s winning application
Oneonta’s winning application which secured us this DRI state grant was written by an outside consultant who worked with City of Oneonta staff. This was completed in early 2016. In this application there is no mention of a new construction project on top of the Westcott parking lot. There are numerous other inconsistencies as well. Why are we not following our application? For example, the application emphasized numerous times that our downtown vacancy problem needs to be addressed. Our application states: “It is imperative that, for both the building and the downtown, these [vacant] structures are fully occupied”. We should have spent time evaluating our existing downtown buildings many of which are underutilized or vacant. Why are we going to risk creating more vacancies by building more structures?
DRI grant in other cities (Oneonta’s missed opportunity)
This $10 million DRI grant was given out to many other cities across New York State. By looking at what other cities have done with their $10 million we can see that Oneonta missed an opportunity. Jamestown located in western New York State was one of the initial 10 cities to receive the $10 million DRI grant. Jamestown is similar to Oneonta in that it is a small town with a lot of historic buildings. Unlike Oneonta, Jamestown is not proposing the construction of new buildings. Jamestown is going to rehabilitate numerous underutilized or vacant historic buildings. Jamestown is also putting money into their Performing Art Center (Reg Lenna Center). In Oneonta, our Performing Art Center (Foothills PAC) requested funding, however, they got nothing. A summary of Jamestown’s DRI plan can be found here. Why did Oneonta’s DRI plan take such a different path then Jamestown’s DRI plan?
State Grants and Conclusion
If economic development state grants are going to exist there needs to be more scrutiny at the local, county and state levels. We (the public) need to question our elected officials. A problem with these state grants is a lack of accountability.
In summary, many in the Oneonta public feel what is being pushed on this community is not being done in their interests or reflective of their concerns. If these DRI buildings ever get built they may for decades stand as symbols representing the dysfunction in our government.
Many vocal critics to the DRI plan have been in the news. See below articles (this is not an all-inclusive list):
Council seeks funds for food, beverage – July 18th
Downtown plan’s critics host talk on Main Street – March 8th
Mayor responds to critics of revitalization plan – March 6th
Critics question details of DRI – Feb 21st
Mayor, critics debate downtown plan – Feb 15th
Food-hub site draws critics over eminent domain use – January 26th
In addition to the above there have been numerous “letters to the editor” published in the Daily Star newspaper. Many of these have been posted in the comments section on this web site.