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Who will go to bat for City of Amsterdam economic development?

The decision to mothball the Community and Economic Director’s position was not unexpected, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing to me. The way I see it, the move was consistent with misguided ideology that has been force-fed via newspaper editorials and op-ed pieces to city residents for years; that the City of Amsterdam has no business trying to market itself or handle its own economic development matters, and that we should all be content to sit in the back seat and let regional leaders take the wheel.

It was a contentious issue when funding for the CEDD position, which had been dormant for years, was restored in 2012. Even though Rob von Hasseln, who had held the position since then, was able to show some success by working to help secure nearly $500,000 in back tax payments for the downtown hotel property, the previous Republican controlled council sought to cut the $45,000 per year position for two years in a row, citing “duplication of services” as the reason. They backed off at the last minute in 2015 in the face of a potential legal battle. However, Montgomery County officials had been so sure that the position was going to be eliminated that same year, they included the transfer of the position’s duties in their government efficiency report.

Even before Michael Villa took office January 1, he had announced that he would not be re-appointing von Hasseln to the position, nor was he going to put anyone else in the position for the time being. So last year’s plan to transfer the duties of the position over to the county economic development team is now going ahead. County Executive Matt Ossenfort told me in June 2015 that he believes the recently expanded county economic development department is adequately staffed and can handle the additional responsibilities. However, as a result of his decision, I believe the mayor has lost the only full-time person under his direct supervision who can work 100% on city-related economic development projects. I think it’s serious step back for the city.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t think Montgomery County Business Development Center CEO Ken Rose and his staff can do well for the city. Rose has already been instrumental in some of the larger projects in the city such as the Concordia Senior Communities development and the downtown hotel property as well. I expect he will continue to do good work for the entire county with the city included. However there is one thing that no county staff member can do, and that is to advocate unequivocally and unabashedly for the City of Amsterdam.

To illustrate my point, it’s worth considering what Rose said back in May 2015 in regards to the downtown hotel property during a time when it was questionable whether the owners were going to move ahead with the project or sell the property. When I asked him about the progress of the property during an interview, he mentioned, “The studies that were done for that location compared to other studies we’ve seen for the Route 30 area up in the Town of Amsterdam, those studies came back much more positive for a viable hotel operation up on the Route 30 corridor than it was for downtown Amsterdam.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable, evidence-supported statement to make. It doesn’t mean that a hotel in the city isn’t possible, just that one would probably be more profitable on Route 30. When it comes to considering one location in the county over another, any county employee has to be objective. They would be at fault if they weren’t.

But by comparison, being that he worked exclusively for the city, von Hasseln was free to write and proactively distribute his “top 25 reasons” to own a hotel in the City of Amsterdam to potential buyers. Because Von Hasseln was a city employee, not a county employee, he was able to show complete favor to the wishes of many city residents and business owners who have said that they want to see a hotel in the downtown area. Mayor Michael Villa has also said recently he wants to see a hotel in the downtown area. But given Rose’s sentiments, can we expect the county to aggressively pursue this goal on behalf of the city?

Now it’s not like either the mayor, aldermen, or the county legislators who represent the city areas can’t advocate on behalf of residents and businesses when it comes to economic development issues. But it’s always going to be one of many priorities that they have to keep track of and balance. Not one of these officials can work full-time on economic development.

The Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency, with it’s full-time director Jody Zakrevsky, is one entity that could possibly step up to provide an increased leadership role for the city. I have no doubt that everyone involved with AIDA is very dedicated, however from my viewpoint, they lack a sense of long range vision and strategy. At the last meeting I attended, I thought it was interesting that they still feel the need to justify their involvement with certain projects, such as the assisted living facility that will now occupy the former hotel building, in terms of how it relates to being “industrial.”

And in the past, the board has made it very clear that they do not take direction from the mayor’s office. Rather, the board members are appointed by the common council. Alderman and AIDA liaison Jim Martuscello told me in January that he would be attending the board’s first meeting of the year in order to clarify the council’s expectations of the agency, but did not end up attending.

Speaking of council members, it’s disappointing to me that not one member spoke out against the elimination of the CEDD position, even though most of them told me last year during their campaigns that they saw the need for a dedicated city position.

Alderman Chad Majewski told me in early January via email, “I did feel during the election is was an important role in our city. However, in meeting with the mayor and council, the mayor let us know that he wanted to switch this over to the county. The council weighed the positives and negatives and agreed to move forward with the county. The council as a whole agreed to revisit this 6 months to ensure that we made the right decision. I intend to hold them to that.”

I asked Majewski to elaborate on what the “positives and negatives” were, given that these discussions were held privately, not publicly, before the mayor and 4 of 5 aldermen took office. I have not yet received a response.

The cold hard truth that I believe both city officials and residents need to come to terms with is that we are in competition with our surrounding municipalities for new businesses. I happen to believe that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s in the city’s best interests to cooperate with our neighbors and sometimes it’s our interest to compete. A hotel on Route 30 in the town will not benefit the city’s residents and businesses as much as one located in our downtown area. I believe we have the best chance of attracting a good developer for this project and others if we have someone working full-time, actively prospecting and following up on leads. If Mayor Villa thinks someone other than von Hasseln can do a better job at that, then so be it. But I believe the mayor has made a very hasty and mistaken decision to eliminate a position that could very valuable to him and the city. I hope in the coming months that both the mayor and common council will take up the issue again and have an open and public debate on who exactly is going to “go to bat” exclusively for the city’s economic development interests.

About Tim Becker

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

10 Responses to Who will go to bat for City of Amsterdam economic development?

  1. Bernadette Twente says:

    Your article express how I felt when I heard the news. We need some to 100% look out for the City of Amsterdam.

    Thank you. Bernadette

  2. Mike says:

    I would like to know where in the pecking order we fall when it comes to the downtown revitalization monies that the Governor has proposed. Will Canajoharie receive preference because the project is an easier sell than a project here. Ken Rose has not been a friend of the city and I don’t expect a change now. Your article is on the money.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Just to clarify in regards to Ken Rose, my point was that he really can’t favor the city over any other municipality and I don’t think he should be faulted for that. I personally think his efforts in regards to projects in the city, and projects outside the city that use our utilities, have been beneficial.

      • Mike says:

        And that is where the problem is …we have been caught in a political hunger game from the State on down with no one pitching our interests consistently for the last 40 years . I may be off base, but we lost a couple of step by getting rid of CEDD and a much needed front person (maybe not the last guy,but someone)to advance the city’s position.

  3. Rick Morrison says:

    Good report Tim. Once again you are touching on a subject that looms over government in Amsterdam and Montgomery County. The elected officials in the region have ZERO regard for Open Meetings Laws and the spirit of Open Government. They much prefer the shadows and lack of candor. This has been a strike against those that comprised the Villa Campaign staff. It is disheartening to read that new members, fresh faces to the Council have hopped on the bandwagon. A government bent on working in the shadows can never fully serve the people.

  4. Scott says:

    How has Mr. Rose not been a friend of the City?

  5. James Martuscello says:

    Ms. Danielle Whelly from the MCED office is our direct link from the county to the city in discussions about economic developement.I have had the opportunity to sit in on meetings of how her office will work to help the city. Perfect case of shared services. No doubt the critics have spoken with us only in office less then two months. Mayor Villa and this Council along with Ms.Whelly and theMCED dept. will have Amsterdam moving forward much to the dismay of our critics. Also when the Mayor and 4out of 5 met it was at Chad,s house for coffee and cookies Dec 11 to discuss what our goals should be when we take office and list priorities. Finances was number one. Notice the date. We violated no open meetings law. We were not even sworn in.
    Jim Martuscello Ward 5 City of Amsterdam

    • Tim Becker says:

      I have no doubt of Ms. Whelly’s abilities, however let me ask you this – if a developer reaches out to her and says, “I want to open a hotel, I’m going to decide between route 30 and downtown in the city…”, as a county employee, can she unequivocally say “you should definitely choose downtown in the city, and here’s why…” ???

      How long you all have been in office so far doesn’t matter to me on this issue. This has been a contentious issue for years. That’s why I asked you about your stance on the CEDD position during your campaign interview. And I would like to know why you, and the other alderman, changed your mind in the time between the campaign interviews and when you took office. Thank you!

  6. Ken Rose says:

    Tim,

    Give me a call sometime it’s not about a a hotel developer saying which is a better place. It’s about market, lending and NOI. This discussion has gotten to personalities again and that has been the black eye with developers and real estate investors for Amsterdam. We all want Amsterdam to succeed because if that happens it makes my job easier in attracting outside private investment. This back and forth does more harm than good. We have a huge opportunity to start turning things around and I would hate to see this same old stuff stifle it. Investors and developers looking at area read everything that goes on. In fact they know more about us than we do and if anyone doesn’t think the constant negativity from our own people doesn’t hurt us. Think again. Thank you Ken.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Ken, I’m kind of disappointed that you would dismiss valid concerns and discussion over policy as “same old stuff.” I’ve taken great care here to write a piece that is respectful to all parties and sticks to the issues and there is nothing wrong with that and I think if a few slightly negative comments enter into the discussion, it’s not the end of the world. Public officials, both elected and appointed, should have no trouble justifying their decisions, and that’s what I don’t see happening. I believe very crucial policy decisions are being made here without any public discussion, and that’s not right.

      While I’m sure you have much more experience with this than me, I know that developers are human beings and they make decisions based on factors that go beyond just the raw numbers. Am I wrong? Don’t you think developers consider the culture, vision and other non-tangible qualities of a community? We need someone who can completely go to bat for the city and *sell* the city’s positives over any other surrounding community. Can your staff do that?

      I will probably see you Wednesday and the Tribes Hill Heritage center presentation, I’ll talk with you afterwards if you like.