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.