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The most important meeting this year (that almost no one went to)

waterfront_meeting_article

I almost didn’t go to the Waterfront Heritage Area meeting this past week. I saw the notice for it posted a week prior and instinctively thought no one’s going to show up just like several past public meetings of the same kind. Honestly, just from the description of the meeting, I wasn’t even sure exactly what the meeting was going to be about anyway. But at the last-minute, I decided to check it out and I’m glad I did. Turns out the WHA is kind of a big deal for Amsterdam.

The WHA is one of two Brownfield Opportunity Act studies being done in the City of Amsterdam. The study area covers areas on both the south and north sides of the river and includes the Bridge Street and Main Street downtown areas. The BOA is a NY State sponsored program that gives tax breaks to businesses within the defined areas as well as provides for significant grant money that would require only 10% matching funds from the city. In short, the two programs could have the potential to literally (and I do mean literally) transform significant areas of our city.

And that’s why it bothers me that the turnout was so light. Amsterdam has no shortage of good ideas. I can’t even count the number of internet threads I’ve been on where people brainstorm on new ideas to revitalize the city. Outlet stores, restaurants, sports centers, and performing arts centers are just some of the ideas I’ve heard proposed over the years. But I think many people don’t quite realize the tremendous amount of time, effort and money that is required to bring about any of these visions. No one wants to raise taxes or borrow. The private sector certainly hasn’t stepped up to do anything. So the only option left for us is to pursue these NY state funds. Getting these funds requires a whole lot of planning, paperwork and persistence. And that’s what the WHA committee,  Community and Economic Development Director Robert von Hasseln, as well as consultants from Elan Planning and Design are working on.

This past meeting was supposed to be a time for the public to give their input. Participants could either give their feedback on the initial ideas presented by the committee or write in ideas of their own at one of six stations arranged around the room. There were maybe around a dozen people at the meeting, many of them were committee members. A few people submitted their ideas which was great, but there could have been a lot more.

So why was there such a low turnout for such an important meeting? I think there are a number of reasons.

First, I think a lot more effort has to be invested in public relations on this project. Yes the meeting was announced a week in advance, but in my opinion, that was the bare minimum amount of promotion. Committee members are volunteers, so I don’t necessarily place the burden on them, but I think that between von Hasseln and Mayor Ann Thane, more could have been done. The notice should have gone out at least 2-4 weeks in advance. More details about what the meeting’s purpose was would have also helped. The committee’s initial ideas could have been posted online to generate discussion and interest in the meeting.

On my part, I could have followed up on the initial notice and asked for more details in order to pass them on to Compass readers. The other local media outlets could have done this as well.

The other problem was illustrated clearly when Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler, the only elected local official who attended the meeting, took advantage of the “questions” period of the meeting to complain that even though she was aware of the committee and was notified of the meeting, that nothing had “come before the council” about the project and that previous committee meetings had not been publicized.

So here’s the thing – I’ve attended almost all the common council meetings this year, and I can tell you that the amount of time spent discussing any issues even remotely related to long-term economic development has been next to nothing. What “comes before the council” is the responsibility of the council, they set their own agenda. Being that the council knew about the WHA effort, if they wanted more information, they could have asked for it. I think the truth is, based on what I have observed, that council members just don’t have these long-term “big picture” projects high on their priority list and that’s a problem. When you have a meeting like this and only one elected official shows up, what does that communicate to the public as to the importance of the projects like these?

The concern I have is that given the very limited public engagement on this issue, if these projects actually get funded down the road, we’re going to have another situation similar to what we have with the pedestrian bridge currently under construction. We’ll have sharply divided opinions, lack of unity, and lack of common understanding as to the long-term goals. The way I see it, that type of environment could negate any economic benefit from these projects as potential investors, business owner or residents will wonder what on earth we really want in this city.

So what can we do about it? I think holding a repeat of the last meeting with more notice, more promotion and clearer objectives wouldn’t be a bad idea. We in the media need to our part in communicating the importance and details of the project. Planners should make an effort not just to notify the council members, but to encourage them to attend. Council members just need to make a conscious decision to pay attention to this issue. The meeting should be planned far enough in advance so that the mayor and council members can make sure they can attend. At the very least, the next committee meeting should be publicized and allow some time for public comment. Additionally, I have volunteered my services to transfer the material presented at the meeting to an interactive online form that could be used to gather more feedback.

I know there are some who would portray the low turnout as a reflection of people’s dissatisfaction of Mayor Thane. I think anyone who would purposefully stay away from a meeting like this just because they disagreed with the mayor or had some sort of personal grudge against her would be guilty of extremely small-minded thinking. While I don’t doubt that there are people who fit this description, I don’t believe they are anywhere near a majority.

There are others who would say that trying to get public consensus in Amsterdam is a futile effort, that most city residents would reject any type of new idea or change. But if the majority of population doesn’t want economic development, then this whole project is a waste and no amount of money is going to save us. But I don’t believe that outlook either. I believe the majority of Amsterdam residents want to see the city thrive but are skeptical. Many, I think, are just not engaged fully with what is going on with city government in general. I believe these folks can be reached and they can be persuaded, but it will take effort.

Leaders who see the way to the future need to do more than come up with good ideas. They also need to do the hard work of building the trust and understanding with the public so that we move forward with some degree of unity.

Click here to view material presented at last week’s meeting.

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

5 Responses to The most important meeting this year (that almost no one went to)

  1. Mike Cinquanti says:

    Tim,

    You hit the nail on the head. If the City really wants greater citizen participation on this very important issue, they need to do a much better job cultivating it. They must also agree amongst themselves to do whatever they can to keep the politics and partisan sniping out of the process. Most concerned citizens have no interest whatsoever in listening to elected leaders complaining about each other or playing the blame game. That’s what you expect from young children, not mature adults.

    Having said this, I do not mean to disparage the efforts or abilities of the many fine folks who are already working on this initiative, many of whom are volunteers. They are all to be commended.

    But as you indicated, these Brownfield Grants have transformational potential for a City like Amsterdam and there is absolutely no reason why the right idea cannot cause and even surpass the sort of cooperative spirit and joint effort that briefly surfaced with the recently rejected casino initiative.

    But it won’t happen with everyone on the defensive and it won’t happen if our City leaders and our local media don’t dedicate the time and effort necessary to make this a top priority. That means doing a much better job educating and motivating the public and each other to do whatever we can to make this happen. There should be a prominent link on the home page of the City’s Web site that provides users with a detailed and current status of this project’s progress!

    I would also recommend that the engineering firm spearheading this effort come up with an online vehicle for more efficiently sharing and gathering information, data, ideas, opinions and concerns from the community. I realize all people do not use or access online technology but that’s no reason to not make use of it for those that do. A well designed and moderated Facebook Page that controls user access would be a great resource in this case. For example, at the last meeting, members of the public had to get to the meeting and then physically walk through six manual information stations where they were invited to handwrite their inputs. That may be the best way to assure everyone is given equal access but it certainly doesn’t make participating in the process as easy or inviting as it could be.

  2. diane says:

    Tim Becker and Mike Cinquanti, you have both posted excellent comments with insight on how to solve the problem. I agree, maybe a FB page dedicated to ideas for the south side BOA. Also, it seems that all messages from CED comes out very blah, no hurry, no excitement. Maybe if the individuals that do all the fancy flyer communication on other subjects could help produce a more inviting invitation, people might become more interested. I also think it is important that committee members take the time to attend these public hearings to be sure that the message getting out there is the correct one, and they get the correct feedback.

    The council has had presentations by the CED dept head. They are blah and do not strive to get anybody’s attention. They are the same thing each time with updates…..even I as someone who has watched and been involve questions, why it has taken so long to get this Southside BOA and the Northeast BOA off the ground. It seems like 3-4 years ago that I went to a meeting for the NE Boa at the Elks club and never heard anymore until we get these reports from the CED. Maybe as you also proposed a direct link on the city’s website would also help. But, information must be updated frequently. When people are chosen for these projects their needs to be an open casting call, maybe as a PSA on the radio or something and their phone numbers and email should be put out there for others to contact them. Someone may be more poised to present something to someone they know, then someone they don’t. Just a thought.

    Mike Cinquanti, I really liked your idea for the bridge and I do think it is something that should be looked into. The Mohawk Wheel of Life will be moving forward with this latest grant. It will be in the center of the bridge. Thank you for putting your ideas out there and taking the time to come to the meeting.

    • Tim Becker says:

      As far as the CED’s presentations being “blah” – I guess that’s a matter of perspective. I’ve listened to the same presentations before the council and I’ve thought they were great – highly informative and I’ve never come away with the impression that he’s not excited about these projects. Maybe it just depends on what you are really interested in as to what you find interesting.

      It was good you were at the meeting Diane, I hope the other council members start to show the same level of involvement as you have.

  3. The Community and Economic Development Department handles or assists in the following:

    • Brownfield Opportunity & neighborhood revitalization planning
    • Regional economic development activities (downtown hotel, Deer Run assisted living facility, etc.)
    • City Hall Historic Survey & grant requests
    • New Code Enforcement initiative in collaboration with the City of Schenectady
    • NY Rising project identification & implementation (hazard mitigation and economic development)
    • Riverwalk and train station relocation planning for waterfront revitalization
    • Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook coordination
    • Landbank facilitation
    • Department of Health property inventorying and data base development
    • Veteran’s affairs
    • Farmers Market coordination
    • City-wide historic preservation initiatives
    • Grant coordination

    and a variety of additional responsibilities including retail development, press release production, event management, state agency liaison, planning/zoning reviews, and marketing.

    This list is by no means exhaustive. These activities cannot and will not be taken on by AIDA or the county.

    I don’t understand what topics are “blah.”

  4. Rob von Hasseln says:

    Mike: If you would like to discuss how to create a Hall of Fame, please give me a call at (518) 841-4323, normal business hours, after hours at (518) 322-2091, or stop by room 301 at City Hall. I agree with you on the attractiveness of the concept and I’ve had practical experience beyond the MVGO with similar projects.