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.