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A View From the Third Floor

State receives Potsdam DRI Projects for Consideration

Hey hey, Gang:

It’s been a long while since I’ve had the chance to report on the Potsdam Downtown Revitalization process. I was fortunate enough to have been reporting for the Watertown Daily Times covering Potsdam at the time of the DRI application process and subsequent October 2019 announcement of the village being awarded the $10 million grant by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul during a news conference in Clarkson University’s Old Main building.

Now I am here to tell you the final projects have been submitted to the state for funding consideration and recap a bit of the process during the pandemic.

The Village got to work with the state and local partners, MJ Engineering (from Clifton Park) came on board as the design team and the public had multiple opportunities to sit in on meetings and gatherings to study the projects and give input. But between then and now, the Rona came to town and the DRI’s Local Planning Committee went from in-person meetings to a singular online meeting on March 17 before those meetings came to a sudden halt and the process lost five months, now setting them on an expedited path, according to Frederick J. Hanss, Potsdam’s planning and development director.

Mr. Hanss has been a constant source of information on the process and he, along with LPC member Maggie McKenna, who is also the executive director of the St. Lawrence Arts Council, sat down with me on Sept. 2 to give us an update on all things DRI and my story on that is below.

Glad to be here, your Adult Program Coordinator, William “W.T.” Eckert

Logo for the Village of Potsdam, NY Downtown Revitalization Initiative

Fourteen projects for Potsdam’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative have been selected by the Local Planning Committee and were sent to the state following Wednesday night’s virtual committee meeting. 

During the course of the nearly hour-and-a-half meeting, which was the sixth meeting of the LPC led by project consulting agency M.J. Engineering and Land Surveying P.C.and was streamed live on YouTube and can be seen at https://potsdamdri.com/, the committee decided to cut the proposed St. Lawrence Whitewater Park from the original list of 15 projects. 

A link to the online project gallery, listing the proposed projects, their descriptions and locations, along with other information can also be found at the DRI website or can be perused by visiting https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/d592fefb1dde4349bfaf483cc612a3d9

The cost of the whitewater park was a proposed $2,060,000 and was seeking the total amount in its DRI ask, without a local share. The total cost of the 15 projects was $22.2 million prior to the exclusion of the whitewater park, bringing the total projects costs down to $19,940,000. The total ask in grant money from the DRI was reduced from $14.3 million to $12.24 million.

Potsdam Planning and Development Director Frederick J. Hanss said the Local Planning Committee expects to hear back from the state regarding which projects will be chosen for funding no earlier than next year.

Originally at $10 million, the DRI grant funding is now $9.7 million following the cost to create the LPC.

But getting to Wednesday night’s sixth meeting and whittling down the project list and costs was a task, one that was supposed to be completed in May, following the obstacle of a pandemic that shut down businesses, municipalities, and whole communities, including a five-month halt to the DRI process following a March 17 online conference.

“So everything got put on pause and, essentially, what we were hearing from the consultants was that the state wasn’t going to approve what they were calling ‘The Continuation Plan’ piecemeal, so you had to submit it and there was a deadline in April for submissions,” Mr. Hanss said. “I think we are on more of an expedited schedule to get it wrapped up, and this has been a fast-moving process, too.”

The Local Planning Committee submitted their plan to continue virtually while the state agencies and the consulting teams at MJ Engineering worked on a plan to continue the public participation process for the village. 

Following the Aug. 12 virtual meeting, the first meeting since March, teams created the online project gallery, the on-street project profile posters that were put up at Jernabi Coffeehouse and the Potsdam Chamber of Commerce, hardcopy brochures, and comment cards that were in the front and rear lobbies of the village offices on Park Street, and the Sept. 2 live Q & A with the DRI LPC Co-chairs, State Representatives, and Project Consultants.  

Public Participation ended on Sept. 4, with what Mr. Hanss said was about 90 written comments submitted from the public and about 400 people visited the online project profile. SLC Arts Executive Director Maggie M. McKenna, who is also a village trustee and is a member of the LPC, said she valued the various perspectives and questions about some of the projects, which she had not previously considered, 

Ms. McKenna also has a project, North Country Arts Center Project located at 6-8 Raymond St., which is being considered for funding through the DRI. Prior to Wednesday’s LPC meeting, she announced on Facebook that the project already received $20,000 in grant funding from the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency through the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency’s 2020 Community Development & Environmental Improvement Program.

“It has been a whirlwind,” Ms. McKenna told me, laughing. “I have to wear two very different hats when I’m on, which is complicated, because I do have a vote in the Local Planning Committee but I cannot be advocating for my own project because that would be a conflict of interest and I take that very seriously.” 

Both Mr. Hanss and Ms. McKenna praised the projects that were submitted by members of the private sector, saying those projects didn’t get the level of attention they deserved.

“So when you look at the Co-Op project or you look at the Clarkson Inn project or Nick Zern’s project (at 59 Market St., doing handicap accessibility, some facilities improvements and then create a business conferencing center in the basement), those are transformative projects, Mr. Hanss said. “Those projects, number one, they are going to generate real property tax revenue for the village, they are going to generate sales tax revenue that the village will enjoy, they are going to provide employment opportunities for people, even with the Co-Op, the Co-Op might be looking at moving five people from being part-time employees to five people being full-time employees. That’s a home run as far as an economic developer is concerned.”

    Ms. McKenna, who was previously a member of the Co-Op Board, said there had been a $15,000 marketing study done to determine whether the Co-Op should move. The results of the study said “‘you should move, you will be able to grow.’”

“So it was like ‘move or die’ essentially and they said that the best place we think you should move is somewhere near Pizza Hut, which is exactly where they are going,” she said. “I have been so amazed at the Co-Op because they have three board members running their program and I’m crunching numbers as we speak, right now. So I’m really proud of the Co-Op and their board leadership for doing all that work too. It’s been really incredible.”

Many of these projects, the Co-Op move, The North Country Arts Center, the expansion of the Clarkson Inn, have all been projects in the works, but before the DRI grant, had all been a bit of a pipe dream, Ms. McKenna said.

In the case of the Clarkson Inn project, sponsored by Vision Hotels to include 20 new rooms, a fitness center, and a “modern meeting space,” according to the project proposal, Mr. Hanss said it has been on the drawing board for 10 years, had the schematics all drawn up, and had been to the planning board with approval. 

The DRI was a game-changer and a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for Potsdam, Ms. McKenna said.

“All in all, I think it has been really wonderful to see this process unfold, to see the community leaders participating in the conversations and saying this is what we care about as a community, these are the things that matter to us and this is why,” Ms. McKenna said. “But then, on the other side of things, I have a project in here. It’s been really gratifying to see my personal vision ‒ for my downtown that I live in and my organization that I run ‒  is something that people are really interested in. So it has been really exciting to see that happen, too.”

For Mr. Hanss, he said the excitement in the process has been to see the four years he has been working with village officials, like Administrator Gregory O. Thompson and the village board, having submitted DRI applications to the state, lead to a winning proposal.

“For four, whole-long years out in the tall grass to like, boom, we got a Local Planning Committee and they are looking at projects and they are coming up with ideas and watching the process go from 47 projects to 15 projects, that’s been pretty cool,” He said. “And nobody can say that it wasn’t community-driven, because it was, and nobody can say that the public wasn’t’ put in the process, because they were, and it’s worked really well so far.”

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A View From the Third Floor

A View From the Third Floor

Hey hey, gang,

William here, again, with a new kind of blog I have been thinking about, probably since prior to my arrival as the Potsdam Public Library Adult Program Coordinator. This one is rooted in the news of not just what is happening around the library, but what is happening around the neighborhood . . . the village, the town, and maybe a bit beyond. This is 

A View From the Third Floor

When I was first talking to your devoted Library Director Annie Davey about taking the job, she gave me two options as to where I could have my office: in the solitude of the basement (which is a cozy spot, by all means); or on the third floor, which comes with a window overlooking the library. Without hesitation, I jumped on the third-floor opportunity. I thought, as a program coordinator, how great would it be to be able to look down on the library and imagine how we could utilize the space for talks, concerts, classes, and the like?

But then other stories popped up, as they do in the mind of someone who has been a student of journalism since the early 2000s, and I began to look out the window across from my desk and considered how it overlooks Downtown Potsdam. This third-floor office gives me a view of not just the inside of the library but the outside as well. A View From the Third Floor will, thus, be a kind of news periodical, keeping up with the news of our community, since a library should be a source of information,

Information is the gateway to knowledge, right? So I will keep my ears and eyes open for stories but will count on the community to also keep me in the know.

Email me anytime at weckert@potsdamlibrary.org and let’s keep up on the news about town.

Glad to be here,

William “W.T.” Eckert

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Announcements

PPL Renovation Update

Hey gang,

PPL Adult Program Coordinator William Eckert here again with the much-desired, frequently-requested update as to where we are with renovations.

The truism is that you have to have a solid foundation and that is what architect Rebecca Naomi Weld, founder of Renew Architecture & Design said she is working on with contractors.

Work has been delayed mainly due to issues at the foundation level, but also as a result of the historic nature of the building, Ms. Weld said.

Contractors with Continental Construction of Gouverneur, the company doing the work, cut a series of holes into the library floor where steel beams will be located to support the new second-floor mezzanine; however, there were some issues when it came with the alignment of the blueprints for the library and the blueprints with the basement, resulting in the delays, Ms. Weld said.

“When we go to connect these dots down below, we had very accurate drawings of the two,” she said, “but they were slightly off in terms of where they were, relative to each other–just a couple of inches–but that did mean that we had to adjust the steel frame to be able to do that.”

Moreover, there was a concern with doing work in the basement because it is occupied by tenants other than the library, so to avoid disturbing the other tenants, “plastic cages” or enclosures have been created where each of the posts will be installed.

Inside one of the enclosures, Ms. Weld points to the cuts in the existing floor in order to get into the ground underneath. Above that cut, she points to the matching cut in the ceiling that is also the library floor. In the way of that hole are two pipes, one being a water main, that Ms. Weld said has become part of the infrastructure since the original blueprints were created.

Because it was not on their radar, Ms. Weld said a change order had to be created with the contractor for any additional costs. A relatively minor change, but a delay, she said.

Contractors have been working around other existing infrastructure they’ve encountered, including existing steel posts they don’t want to disturb. Ms. Weld said they are placing structures and steel beam supports around them to avoid disturbing the structural integrity of the existing building.

Cutting into the concrete slab of the basement floor, an old sewer main pipe was also discovered. Ms. Weld said it was undetermined as to whether it was still working and could come from the original 1937 construction of the building.

“When this building was first built there were several sets of changing rooms and bathrooms. The bathrooms for the people who were coming to see the theater were up here more towards the front, Park Street side of the building here, and then back here there were changing rooms and locker rooms,” she said. “So this could be a pipe from 1937 but we can’t just cut it out and find out later that it was actually the water main that goes to the water in the back, so we had to extend that footer.”

Of the nine beams in total, the beams on the floor across from the Friends of the Library bookstore will be covered with custom-made bookcases that will cover the structure and replace the existing bookcases in front of the bookstore.

In the corner of the basement next to the doorway leading into the offices of the St. Lawrence Arts Council and Village Planning and Development offices, contractors are working to “shoehorn” a post in very close to an existing post; the space beyond it had a closet for the equipment of the elevator.

“And of course, we need some of that space where the equipment for the elevator is for a footer,” she said. “In the end, it will just be changes under the ground, but we got permission from the Village to very temporarily shut down the elevator, pull the equipment out of the way, build our footer, put the equipment back in.

“And, of course, there is a pipe there, an old pipe that has asbestos, and they remediated 85 feet of asbestos pipe . . .” she said.

Ms. Weld said they also made some starting assumptions about the soil conditions and about the existing foundation, but it is an existing building with a slab covering all of that.

“So we had to do our best guess and it turned out that our best guess was a bit optimistic,” she said. “So that causes a delay in that they did what we had drawn and then when they saw some of those conditions we had to literally go back to the drawing board.”

“So the long and short of it is, there was a delay because we had to revisit what those situations were going to be, but now we have a plan and we are very close to them coming back in and moving,” she said.

From there, she said work should be able to proceed fairly smoothly but all of it essential, especially due to the weight the steel beams will carry.

“That’s going to have books on it as well,” Ms. Weld said of the mezzanine, “so that is a whole other level of structural load, and there is nothing heavier than books. So we didn’t want to set two floors of books on one old, 1937 steel frame.”

In addition to the Phase One mezzanine project, the first of three phases, Phase Two will see the 1976 drop ceiling with the fluorescent lighting removed to create eight more feet of ceiling space, showcase the original ceiling which has a historic cornice around the whole perimeter and make room for the mezzanine, which she said would currently only have a six-foot ceiling with the drop ceiling in place.

The new mezzanine will create a second floor that will cover about a third of the existing library floor, where there will be a new children’s area.

The restorations to the rest of the library’s main reading room will only complement the mezzanine, she said, including not just the restoration of the cornice around the ceiling, but also new “more historically-pleasing” lights, exposing some of the details around the back wall, where the staff offices are located and what was previously the stage of the auditorium.

“There are pilasters that we can see the base of on the walls but we can’t see the tops of them but they do exist,” Ms. Weld said. “And then the hardwood floor from when it was an auditorium has been covered with carpet.”

While some of that hardwood floor will be restored, Ms. Weld said carpeting will likely remain in the children’s area in order to mute some of the sounds there.

The library will also be fashioned with a new heating and cooling system that will give the space air conditioning in the summer months, which it has been without. That, along with the ceiling and carpet removal, will be a part of the second phase of the renovations, which needs to go out to bid to determine what construction agency will get the job. Ms. Weld said if the job goes to Continental, they would likely be able to overlap the two phases, quickening the pace of the work.

“The air conditioning units are going to be a series of wall-mounted units, so we do have to deal with the existing infrastructure,” Ms. Weld said. “As we have been doing this construction, we’ve learned more than when we first started designing it. We were taking some stabs at things and now we have a better handle on what is actually here and so we’ll be incorporating that as well. The whole place will be air-conditioned, which will make it a really nice refuge for the larger community once the space is open. So next summer, when we get these 80-90 degree days, people can come and hang out in the reading room, hang out in the mezzanine and stay cool in here.”

In the third phase of renovations, which will be a more behind-the-scenes project with no impact on the library’s re-opening, the “stage area” where the offices, staff room, and restroom were created in 1976, will all be redesigned.

 “The bathroom isn’t accessible, the children’s room and the room that they are currently using for a meeting room is a little bit small,” Ms. Weld said. “When the mezzanine goes in, it actually is going to match the level of the balcony you can see up here, so we would like there to be a classroom space off of that, so we are going to improve that classroom space a little.”

Currently, there is a third-floor balcony about three-feet wide that is storing furniture. Ms. Weld said the wall is going to be brought out to utilize that space on the office side with the addition of more windows.

The ceiling over the circulation desk where patrons enter the library will also be replaced with the current light fixtures remaining in place.

“And then the detail that we did on the railing of the mezzanine and the stair that goes up to the mezzanine, all of those details were taken from the original drawings that I found,” Ms. Weld said. “I have blueprints from 1937 that the building department has on file that show full-scale drawings of the bases of some of these columns, the lovely turn detail for the tops of all of the newel posts. So things like that, some of it we are doing very similar, and some of it we are duplicating some of those details.”

The original building housing the library was built in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration building, as part of the New Deal to keep people employed coming out of the Great Depression.

The ceiling above the entranceway to the library used to be a balcony that has since been closed in.

“What is nice about it is that it was done in 1937 so the details are fairly classical but they aren’t so fancy that restoring them is a whole production of sourcing materials and going back to old-world processes,” she said. “It is pretty straight forward, relatively speaking but still a nicer detail than some of the sort of 70s finishes that went in now.”

Up until the time of the 1976 renovations, Ms. Weld said the auditorium was fairly famous for its community-wide Halloween dances and other things.

“If anyone has pictures to send us, please do, because I can’t find pictures,” she said. “It actually used to open to the building next door, so when it had theater productions here, the place that is currently used for Village Planning Board and administrative meetings was actually a reception hall for the theater.”

Ms. Weld exuded a certain sense of pride and excitement in the work she is doing in bringing this classical look back to the library, pride and excitement that is shared with the entire staff at the library and we hope is shared with our patrons.

But the good work takes time and she said a finish date is not solid but is estimated to be in mid-autumn.

“I certainly can’t make any promises though. At some point, when we revise the contract, the promised finish date for Phase One will be known, but, like I said, there is still the question with how Phase Two is going to work, but certainly our goal is getting it all done at one time, and overlap with the COVID setback, so that’s a long time for the library to be closed, but when it is open again it is going to be spectacular,” Ms. Weld said. “It is going to have more room for people. It is going to have more amenities for people, so we are hoping that people will be patient with us and come back when we’re open.”

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Announcements

PPL Hires New Adult Program Coordinator

Potsdam Public Library has hired as its new adult program coordinator former Watertown Daily Times reporter William Eckert, who library Director Annie Davey called “an invaluable asset.”

“It turned out to be just the perfect fit,” Ms. Davey said. “With his community connections and his enthusiasm for all things in this community and, through working at the paper, I think he has gained such a great understanding of our community and all the different facets of it, that I think that deep understanding of who our patrons are, it is going to be an invaluable asset as a programmer.”

Mr. Eckert said he always had a love of libraries, but his love of the Potsdam Public Library was enhanced after he spoke with Ms. Davey in his capacity as a reporter about the library renovations and Ms. Davey’s vision for the library’s future.

“The Potsdam Public Library has always been a special place for me and I have spent many hours writing here, getting to know the folks that work here and now, to work with them, I count myself deeply fortunate,” he said. “Among all the wonderful experiences I’ve gained as a newspaperman, the greatest was my adoration for community, specifically the Potsdam community, after I was assigned to cover it for the paper. This place is truly special and I believe the library is at the heart of that. I hope to partner with organizations and individuals who want to build on that with programs to educate, entertain and unite our area.”

As adult program coordinator, Mr. Eckert is a member of the LIFE (Literacy is for Everyone) Department, headed by Public Services Manager Sarah Sachs, and he is responsible for planning classes and events for adults and teens, as well as cultivating community partnerships that encourage sustainable and innovative programming.

Mrs. Sachs said in hiring for the position she was looking for someone who would fit into working with all the other programmers at the library.

“We hired someone with a journalism background and with a large portion of curiosity involved in his personality, which is something that I really think, as an educator, is the best approach to learning. You have to be curious,” Mrs. Sachs said. “So already, at the two-week mark, I am seeing not only these qualities, but seeing them being applied, so I think the journalism skills, the organizational skills, the ability to go out and talk to people cold, is really going to work well in this position.”

In addition to his journalism background, Mr. Eckert brings experience as a musician, poet and chef.

William Eckert gets hands-on with an American Kestrel in preparation for a birds of prey program he is organizing with Mark Manske of Adirondack Raptors.

He is currently developing programs that include a birds of prey program with Mark Manske of Adirondack Raptors in Dickinson Center; an outdoor yoga program; a writer’s series; a music series; and a social justice series.

Ms. Davey said one of her favorite things about the culture at the library is being able to capitalize on everyone’s own passion.

 “And so I see this already happening with William because he is calling in connections he has in this community and I would point to the Birds of Prey program that is coming up,” Ms. Davey said. “This is unlike anything we have done at the library before and it is really taking the library out of the building completely and integrating literacy concepts at the same time and tapping into our community’s interests.”