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
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.”