State Could Play Bigger Revitalization Role in 2015

by | Feb 23, 2015 | Uncategorized

Capitol Albany

New York State Capitol, Albany (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

The budget season is well underway in Albany as the Legislature deliberates over Governor Cuomo’s spending plan and the state’s projected $5 billion surplus. There’s much to be hopeful about as this process nears completion and as Western New York gains influence in Albany through recent appointments to top economic development posts.

But what are particular actions the state should take this year – through the budget, through new projects, through policy adjustments – that would give downtown and neighborhood revitalization in Jamestown the biggest boost? The following is a quick summary of state actions that local representatives and others around the state should strongly consider.

When Jamestown demolishes a blighted, abandoned home, it typically costs almost three times more than a similar project just a few miles away in Warren. A primary reason is that asbestos testing, remediation, and third-party monitoring are required for houses with 3 or fewer units in New York but not in Pennsylvania. With resources for demolition now flowing from the state Attorney General’s office to local land banks – including $2 million in demolition aid to the Chautauqua County Land Bank – it makes more sense than ever to relax New York’s rules and allow these resources to go three times as far.

Preventing bank foreclosed properties from becoming demolition subjects in the first place is the focus of the proposed Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act. Among its goals, the bill aims to create a statewide Vacant and Abandoned Property Registry to better inform municipalities about the “zombie” properties in their midst and requires that banks do a better job of identifying and maintaining abandoned property. First proposed in 2014, the bill has launched a necessary conversation on a topic that affects communities of all types from Jamestown to Long Island. Progress of any kind on this front – if just in the form of better communication between banks and municipalities – would be welcome.

Recently, County Executive Horrigan and the mayors of Jamestown and Dunkirk agreed to lead an effort to seek improvements to Route 60, a crucial link between Jamestown and economic opportunities in the rest of the region and a critical part of building stronger ties between the southern and northern parts of the county. The state DOT should work closely with local officials this year to identify the most cost-effective ways to improve the safety, efficiency and beauty of the highway.

The state DOT should also work closely with Jamestown to begin work on redesigning state arterials within the city – including Foote Avenue, Washington Street and E. 2nd Street – to make them safer for all users and more attractive gateways to the city. The city and state have both enacted “complete streets” policies to better accommodate pedestrians and bicycles – now’s the time to develop or finalize plans that would integrate traffic safety and neighborhood reinvestment.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal for a $1.5 billion Upstate Economic Revitalization Competition, modeled after his “Buffalo Billion” initiative, could be good news for the seven upstate regions eligible to compete for the money. Chautauqua County, however, won’t get a shot because it’s in the same Western region that has benefitted from the Buffalo Billion – even though that money has yet to trickle beyond metro Buffalo. This exclusion needs to be addressed by Empire State Development before another round of competitive funding moves forward.

If allowed to fairly compete for economic development resources, chances are good that money will be sought to help repurpose buildings and land that are unused or contaminated – an essential step toward giving urban centers like Jamestown a stronger tax base and more vibrant economy. To boost these efforts further, the state should extend the brownfield tax credit program that is set to expire at the end of this year to continue assisting developers who take on the redevelopment of contaminated land. At the same time, the state should reactivate the Restore New York Communities Initiative, a program that helped fund Jamestown’s Wellman Building, BWB Center, renovation of the former MRC administrative building on Chandler Street, and the demolition of a collapsing section of the old Dahlstrom factory.

In Jamestown and several other small upstate cities, any revitalization effort will be compromised if the state doesn’t come through with additional school aid in 2015. In these cities, a combination of low tax bases, high poverty rates, a high percentage of high-need students, and years of frozen or declining state aid have created financial conditions that could lead to drastic programming cuts this year. The school districts in Jamestown, Niagara Falls, Utica, and five other cities are currently involved in a case before the Court of Appeals that seeks greater per-pupil funding equity between poorer and more affluent districts to alleviate the situation – something that Governor Kasich of Ohio is trying to achieve right now for the struggling urban districts in that state.

If programs in Jamestown’s schools are gutted in the coming year, it will be all the more difficult to encourage homeowners to reinvest in their properties, to promote city neighborhoods to young families, and to welcome businesses into vacant or underutilized buildings. But if the state can address all or most of these issues in 2015, Jamestown’s renaissance will be two steps ahead.

–Peter Lombardi

This post originally appeared in The Post-Journal on February 23, 2015, as the JRC’s biweekly Renaissance Reflections feature.

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