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Rediscovering Downtown: Symposium to fuse leaders’ ideas for downtown revitalization

November 25, 2012
By AMANDA MAY METZGER , The Leader Herald

It's a tale of two cities for many downtowns in upstate New York as the faded memories of packed sidewalks clashes with the boarded-up empty display windows of today.

Below fraying tucked-in awnings above the once-thriving storefronts are the mosaic walkways beckoning shoppers with the artful display of store names of a bygone era.

For years, downtowns have been on life support as malls and shopping plazas spring up in suburbia.

Article Photos

Engines of Creation Web Design & SEO owners Dan LaBate, right, and Paul Langevin talk at the coffee bar at their offices on the corner of East Main and Market streets in Amsterdam on Wednesday. (The Leader-Herald/ Amanda May Metzger)

But in recent years many municipalities have made progress toward returning to an era where a parking spot on the street is scarce.

In Fulton and Montgomery counties, there are still many options for shoppers downtown, but those who remember the days before the mills closed say it's nothing like it once was.

In December, the Fulton and Montgomery Region CEO Roundtable will host an event that brings government and business leaders together, in one room, for about five hours, for a symposium that is the first of its kind locally.

The City Revitalization Symposium is scheduled from 3 to 8:15 p.m. Dec. 6 at Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services on Route 67 in Johnstown.

The CEO Roundtable formed to provide a collective regional voice for the business community. It's a group of civic, education and business leaders who meet regularly and own or manage companies of varied sizes, services and products in Fulton and Montgomery counties.

The idea for the symposium stems from the Regional Business Development Plan, which emphasized the revitalization of the three cities -Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam - as essential to economic development for the entire region.

The Regional Business Plan also requested that by the end of each year, each city and village in the two counties "should complete a Downtown Revitalization Plan for their downtowns," and that's what many hope will emerge from this symposium.

The event includes two panel discussions.

The first is titled "What makes a downtown successful?" This panel brings state Economic Development, Housing and Urban Development representatives, a marketing specialist and Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market Manager Chris Curro together to discuss resources and strategies.

Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger, a member of the CEO Roundtable, said Curro was asked to speak about how the co-op has managed to grow from its small space on North Main Street in Gloversville to the market, deli and art gallery it now houses in the Schine Building, across from its former location.

"We asked him to talk about what it's like to run a business downtown. How do you make it successful, and what support [could] the city give that would be helpful?" Swanger said. "What are some of the things he does to make the business successful? Some folks tell you if you relocate downtown, it just isn't going to make it. That's not the case with the co-op. Why is that? Is it because it's so unique? Is it marketing?"

HUD and state officials will be on hand to discuss the resources available to cities.

"If the cities presented a plan [explaining] this is what we want to do and this is the help we need, I'd be stunned if there weren't folks at the federal and state level that would be interested [in helping] it happen," Swanger said.

The second panel includes developers like Saratoga Springs' Bonacio Construction and Albany's Penta Development Group. It's split into two parts.

"What we're asking the developers to do is give a presentation on some successful projects they have done to revitalize downtown, and also say, 'This is what attracts us to a town or city for development,'" Swanger said. "What are the things that make them say, 'This is a place we could invest time or money in to help turn the city around' and subsequently, what does the city do that sends developers running away and saying they can't possibly do anything to develop that city because there's no cooperation or too many roadblocks."

The event concludes with breakout sessions for each city in which its leaders can develop a plan to move forward.

The event includes dinner as well. There is no charge to attend as it is sponsored by members of the CEO Roundtable. To RSVP, contact Diane Palmateer at FMCC at 736-3622 Ext. 8001, or email diane.palmateer@fmcc.suny.edu.

Relocating downtown

Montgomery County IDA Director Ken Rose, one of several officials who worked on planning the event, said it will be the first of its kind he recalls since it brings together a diverse group of leaders.

Mayor Michael Quill of Auburn, Cayuga County, will deliver opening remarks about how his own city of about 27,000 people revitalized its downtown.

"What we're trying to do is get the political leaders, the decision makers - the ones who have the financing and the potential to do something - around the table to show them some success stories," Rose said.

Swanger said government's role in revitalization isn't necessarily to get out of the way of business, but rather to foster growth.

"It's talking with business folks and finding out from them what stands in the way. Are there policies or regulations or practices that stand in the way?" Swanger said. "I'm not saying we shouldn't have building codes, but sometimes I think with the best of intentions, we put some things in place that just stall people from making investments. Are we truly open for business?"

There are success stories of downtown businesses.

In Amsterdam, Engines of Creation Web Design & SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, moved in the fall of 2011 from the Clock Tower Building on Prospect Street to its renovated space downtown at the corner of East Main and Market streets.

Owners Dan LaBate and Paul Langevin, who started the company about a decade ago from an apartment, said local officials helped them move into their new roughy 1,800-foot downtown space renovated to their specs with offices, a coffee bar up front, and a boardroom.

They were able to get a state grant to cover 75 percent of the renovations necessary to convert what was once a uniform store to their current space.

LaBate and Langevin said they liked their space in the Clock Tower Building, but they wanted to move into an empty storefront on Main Street for several reasons.

"We were looking for more visibility. That section is really intimate. It's two blocks of old storefronts, and it has a lot of charm. There's a lot of potential," LaBate said. "We thought we could be one of the businesses that kind of pushes people to start looking at this area as viable."

LaBate said without the grant, the move would likely have been cost-prohibitive. The grant covered up to $30,000 and paid for about $23,000 while the pair invested thousands as well.

"One business at a time could really turn this downtown area into something special," he said. "We're not a great example of a co-op or a coffee shop, but it's definitely a way to get people to start reconsidering their downtown."

"You just need one anchor to bring foot traffic," Langevin added.

Also essential is for government officials to have a plan designed by professionals to help revitalize the area, the business owners said.

"They need to pony up the money, and not just on sidewalks," Langevin said. "A lot of municipalities don't run like a business. You can't expect a business to be successful without a plan in place."

The same goes for municipalities that may need to pay consultants to market and enact strategies for their citys' successes," he said.

That could include simply reaching out to franchises to lure them downtown instead of to a plaza or mall.

"People shouldn't discount the huge potential this has," LaBate said.

Rose said years ago people lived and worked in the cities. But as the mills closed and transportation became more available, cities grew from the center outward.

There can be challenges to locate downtown, like costly repairs to building infrastructure or sites that have environmental baggage, but the symposium, gathering everyone in one room, will help each city devise a plan that can help overcome the obstacles to revitalization, organizers said.

"I think it's very important to understand what [businesses] are looking for, and to link the investors," Rose said.

 
 

 

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