The former mayor of Amsterdam and current Montgomery County Legislator John Duchessi talked with me about economic development, the comprehensive plan, and the new county government last Wednesday. We met at his Bridge Street office where he currently operates TGW Consulting Group, and also hopes to open his designer handbag storefront later in the year. He is also a member of the Waterfront Heritage Area steering committee.
Duchessi served as the city’s mayor from 1996 to 2003. During that time, he launched an initiative to develop the city’s comprehensive plan. The plan outlined broad goals such as improving the city’s image through marketing, rebuilding the city’s economic foundation, re-establishing downtown as the community’s center, stabilizing and strengthening residential neighborhoods, as well as detailing specific steps to achieve those goals. The effort began in 2001 with selection of committee members and a series of neighborhood meetings and culminated with the adoption of the final plan by the Common Council in 2003.
When I asked Duchessi what prompted him to consider starting the initiative, he recalled a time when Montgomery County had failed with two applications to establish a NY State economic development zone. The zone was eventually created, but Duchessi said the experience made him realize the city lacked a crucial piece in order to be competitive when applying for grants.
“When it came time to apply for grants, we did not have projects that were ready, or plans for projects that we could point to as a basis, as a foundation – if you will – for obtaining grant monies,” said Duchessi. “It was time to do a comprehensive plan, so that we would have the foundation for what the city was going to look like, what the city was going to apply for in grant funding.”
I asked, “So it helps you when you’re applying for grants if you have a comprehensive plan, it strengthens your case?”
“Always, they’ll ask you directly,” said Duchessi.
“What were some of the first steps to get the ball rolling with the project?” I asked.
Duchessi said he announced the initiative in a State of the City address in which he asked the Common Council to approve a resolution funding the project.
“Was the council on board with it at the beginning?” I asked.
“I never really had councils that supported me,” said Duchessi with a grin.
“So they went along with it grudgingly?”
“I used the bully pulpit to make that work.”
“Did they pass a resolution authorizing it?”
“Yeah, they were kicking and screaming, but they did it,” said Duchessi.
Duchessi stressed that the combination of professional planners from Saratoga and Associates working with committee members who represented a cross-section of the city was key to creating a good plan. He said the committee members had “a real sense of what the community needs are and how to respond” and that the professional planners were instrumental in drawing ideas out from them.
I asked him if the term “bedroom community,” which is used in the plan to describe the Amsterdam community, gave some people the wrong impression that the city should move toward being a suburb.
“There are certain catch phrases that people – they can just latch on to and they accept those things as solutions because they’re easy to grasp and easy to explain. Making them happen is entirely another thing,” said Duchessi. He went on to say that he didn’t believe the city had to fit strictly into either a “suburban” or “urban” character and that trying to fit a “20th century overlay over a 19th century city” was problematic.
“The vision’s got to be consistent with what’s possible,” said Duchessi. He said that Amsterdam, like many NY State cities, still hasn’t fully recovered from the shift of the tax base from industrial to residential.
“We have a city that grew up around industry, so that houses were close together, near the industry, two family, multi-family. And those things became no longer desirable,” said Duchessi.
I asked him his thoughts about the proper role of local government in planning economic development and job creation.
“Those things are all subject to market forces,” said Duchessi. “And government can’t control that, they just can’t. So my view of local government really has to do with making communities more welcoming in terms of a place where people want to live and want to do business. I think what government can truly do to make a difference – and we have to own up to this – is rather limited. And we haven’t owned up to that.”
Duchessi said that the impact of elected officials on the local economy, either positive or negative, is often over-estimated. “The decline of cities in the state is just not due to simultaneously having poor mayors, one after another for fifty years, there are economic forces at work,” he said.
“As much as I fought for the economic development zone and breaks for businesses and such like that because it was competitive, I don’t believe that it is effective or really that it works. But you have to do that, because you are competing,” said Duchessi.
“It seems like any new enterprise these days, requires tax breaks to get going,” I offered.
“It’s funny,” said Duchessi, “Because those things were put in place originally, to draw industry to help build up that tax base that’s dwindling, and the first thing they do is offer tax abatement, so it negates the whole purpose.”
“We’ve created a problem for ourselves, it’s inescapable. The playing field is not level anymore, so you have to do those things,” he added.
When I asked Duchessi what types of actions by the local government might actually be effective, he said that utilizing the help available from county, state and federal governments to restructure the city to meet the modern-day demands of residents and businesses was the key.
Duchessi pointed to the World Trade Center reconstruction as an example of rebuilding a structure differently than it was before in response to a situation that is different now than when it was first built.
“Conceptually, I think we should be doing the same thing to our cities in upstate NY, they have to be rebuilt in different form because of what has happened. That’s why the redevelopment of this waterfront in Amsterdam is so important. It has become a different social center. I’m very interested in redevelopment on Bridge street here.”
Duchessi said that his consulting business could be run from anywhere, but the development on Bridge Street attracted his attention. “As this street was restructured, and this space became available, we just liked it better and we moved over here.”
“It’s sort of an intangible thing,” I offered, “you can’t really quantify it, you just like it, it inspires you.”
“Exactly. My wife and I sometimes hang out in Saratoga. We always see people from Amsterdam there. People from Amsterdam are no different than anyplace else. They like places like that where it’s fun to be, [with] an atmosphere, we’re no different than anybody else.”
I asked him if he thought it was time to revise the comprehensive plan.
“Yes. Absolutely,” said Duchessi. “We’ve done a lot of things in the comprehensive plan, some of them need to be explored a little bit further. But with any plan, after a time, you want to see if the plan is working and if revisions should be made.”
I asked, “Wasn’t it the idea that the comprehensive plan would be a resource for elected officials, to use some of these ideas in their platforms?”
“Well not only in their platforms, but in what job they now have. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing, clearly!” said Duchessi.
He added that any given elected official might have their own dream or vision for the city. “But the comprehensive plan was not my dream or vision either,” said Duchessi, “the committee put that together with public input. That’s the whole idea, is that it’s not one mayor’s view of the world.”
At one point, he showed me a design for the tags that will go on the handbags he plans to make and sell from his Bridge Street location. The design resembles an old bridge token. To me it showed just how much the waterfront redevelopment is integrated into his business marketing strategy.
I also talked with Duchessi about his experience so far as part of the new Montgomery County government. Read part two of the interview here.