What happened to culinary incubator space that was supposed to be part of the residential/commercial development proposed by KCG Development for Amsterdam’s south side? Besides the issue of the affordable housing discussed in part one of this article series, this is the next biggest pressing issue that I’ve heard from Amsterdam residents.
The purchase contract between the City of Amsterdam and KCG Development called specifically for 15,000 square feet of commercial space, with 11,000 of those square feet dedicated to a culinary incubator. The idea is this would be a place where aspiring restaurateurs could get their start, sharing a kitchen and dining space with other restaurants until they are ready to go off on their own and rent their own dedicated space. To get an idea of what this might look like, check out the Troy Kitchen.
However, when the site plans were presented before the planning commission last month, instead of an incubator space, there was a 15,000 square foot restaurant and banquet hall building, with Luigi Lanzi, co-owner of Lanzi’s on the Lake and several other Fulton County restaurants, tapped by KCG as the operator.
I asked Mayor Michael Villa about the change and he referred me to the May 2017 study of the incubator idea done by the Karen Karp & Partners consulting firm.
In a nutshell, the study indicates the project is feasible, but will require a lot of effort to build up a food entrepreneur network in the area. The study outlines a 2.5 year plan for the creation of the incubator, with the first steps being to create a steering committee which will then seek out an operator for the project.
There is likely to be untapped demand for restaurant service in Amsterdam and in a larger 25-mile radius region. However, the community lacks a well supported and well-connected network of food entrepreneurs, which will be required for a successful incubator; this network can and must be cultivated through a range of efforts until an incubator is launched.
I asked Montgomery County Business Development Center CEO Ken Rose about the decision to remove the incubator and he replied, “As of this date there haven’t been any operators for an incubator that have come forward. The incubator master plan was just that, a plan where the success would be based upon finding an identified operator of the facility.”
I asked Stacy Kaplowitz, a vice president at KCG who is overseeing the project, what led to the decision to go with a restaurant/banquet hall over the incubator. She replied:
The prior master planning referenced multiple concepts. It also referred to challenges with sustainable use of these shared kitchen spaces as an innovation center. As we evaluated the potential for designing a shared kitchen, the challenges of a responsible, capable party programming it’s use, and compliance with state Department of Health licensing for others to utilize – it was a challenge. We also observed in market reports the noted Schenectady County Community College program has engaged with its local proprietors and are working with new developments next door to its campus to facilitate food and beverage innovation access. Multiple similar sites in adjoining counties seemed to create more uncertainty around its sustainable operation.
The master planning also called for event space. As we listened, we learned of the lack of facilities for sizable events in Montgomery County and Amsterdam. It became a priority to identify a way to keep more social occasions and area civic, non-profit, Chamber and similar events spending locally instead of being drawn to surrounding counties. We prioritized seeking a proven local operator of multiple, successful culinary and beverage businesses.
Bill Teator of DEW Ventures, a partner with KCG on the project provided statistics that show the need for a new restaurant facility:
Amsterdam sees leakage of nearly $7 million annually, or about 60% of the city’s total full-service restaurant demand. In other words, Amsterdam residents only spend about 40% of their restaurant dollars within the borders of Amsterdam. At the level of the 25-mile radius region, leakage in the same sector is over $108 million, which amounts to 20% of total demand.
Teator added that the new restaurant will contribute to effort to make the city’s south side a food destination, contributing to the food-entrepreneur culture that the incubator study indicates is needed to make the project a success.
According to Rose, the incubator idea is still alive, and the project is included in the Downtown Revitalization Initiative application. However, it remains unclear who will take the lead in moving forward with the first steps outlined in the study and from the initial steering committee. Rose indicated that he did not see his office taking that role.
It’s clear the incubator idea needs more time to develop. The decision to go with a restaurant/banquet hall with an experienced operator with an established reputation seems well supported. However, a contract is still a contract. The requirement to include the incubator space is specifically written in the text, and changing that aspect is a large enough issue that it should have been addressed by both the mayor and common council. So far there has not been any public discussion at council meetings about it. While the change may make sense form a wider economic development perspective, not having the space included by KCG is a big setback to the incubator project. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me this change should require some renegotiation between the developer and the city.