Robert von Hasseln is the Director of Community and Economic Development for the City of Amsterdam and the City Historian. Currently, he is also in the midst of a controversy with the Common Council who are discussing the elimination of his position along with several others in order to reduce budget expenditures. I met him in his office for an interview on a busy Monday morning at City hall.
Compass: How did you find yourself in this position of director?
Robert von Hasseln: I was one of fifteen candidates. Ten were eliminated during interviews with the mayor, five candidates advanced to interviews with the mayor and the Common Council, which is not the normal practice. Normally the mayor selects and either the common council approves or disapproves. But in this case, since it was a newly [created position] the decision was made to allow, to encourage the common council to participate. Of the remaining candidates, I was the only unanimous choice. Therefore, I was hired.
Compass: What qualifications do you have to fulfill this position?
Von Hasseln: I was the only candidate that had served…in a variety of positions. I have served in the military, I’ve been in non-profit work, I’ve worked with state and federal levels of government, and in private business. Those are some of the things that I had that some of the other candidates didn’t. The other is, I had a track record of being able to solve difficult questions, to take bad situations and turn them into positive ones throughout my working career, my adult life, in and out of the service.
I basically told the common council and the mayor that they were in a similar situation, details have changed, but I’ve tackled problems in the past where twenty or thirty years had passed and nothing had been done or changed or experts said it couldn’t be done, and I went out and did it and changed the situation. And I promised [the council] that I would pitch this city to outsiders as well as I had pitched the city itself on its history. If I could sell Amsterdam on its history being important, I could sell outsiders on Amsterdam being important.
Compass: Were you involved in the Historic Amsterdam League (HAL) at that time?
Von Hasseln: Yes. I was one of the founders of HAL.
Compass: What was your rank in the Army when you retired?
Von Hasseln: I retired as a Lt. Colonel.
Compass: How long have you functioned as director?
Von Hasseln: I think it will be two years in September.
Compass: What have been some of the highlights of this time in your position?
Von Hasseln: First and foremost, having to re-establish the office. It had existed once before, then been de-funded. There was absolutely nothing left for me: no equipment, no file cabinets, no records, no publications. There was nothing. I needed to get up and running, nothing was here, not even a physical space. I had to fight to get an office space. So that was an interesting period. And then, very soon on arrival, I had to jump in with two feet because there was a lot of important things going on; there were a lot of priorities. And, I said, as important as it was to always bring in business or tourism or bringing in people to grow the tax base, it’s equally important not to lose anything that you have, that you can hold onto.
So, immediately I began working with one firm that had been offered state money to move to Rotterdam and relocate to another factory. Practically within days of starting, I was over there asking, “Did anybody from the city or the county come talk to you about staying in Amsterdam,” and the answer was no. And I said, “Well, will you allow me or is it to late now, to show you why I feel it is economically beneficial for you to stay in Amsterdam?” They did, and they are sill here, and we are still trying to find them a better home in Amsterdam, but they declined the state money to move to Rotterdam.
Likewise, I spent a great deal of time working with the former owners of the Armory, the Amsterdam castle, to make sure that they got good and suitable new owners when they sold. Suitable not only for them but also for the city and particularly the South Side…and for what is already happening on Bridge Street. I’m very pleased that, because of things we did to help, we improved the profile of the castle. There are now twenty-three new, rather stylish, I hate to call them efficiencies, self-contained apartment units, with kitchens and baths, that are being built there now. They could be a stylish, high-end hotel.
Compass: Did you get the new owners any grant money for this renovation or is this their own money?
Von Hasseln: No, this is their own money. All I did was, in working through the Preservation League of New York, and the Historic Amsterdam League, we got the buzz out there about the castle being an extraordinary building in extraordinary shape…therefore being a good buy for anyone out there looking for something like this. So, they are not taking any grant money. They don’t need to. They feel it is an economically viable proposition in itself…I think they’re more interested in going full speed ahead with this rather than waiting for the time it takes to go through the process.
Another point I was very pleased with, it took a lot of time, was the [America’s Best Value] hotel. Literally, the [old owner’s lawyers] wrote us a letter saying we are going to throw the keys on your table and disappear, because [they couldn’t] make it work here. I asked the owners and more importantly the bankers, who held the mortgage, and the realtor if I could help them market the hotel. So, I wrote a seven page proposal, with the top twenty-five reasons why anyone should want to own a hotel in Amsterdam. And when the new owners picked up the hotel, the first thing they did was cut a check for almost a half a million dollars worth of back taxes, water and sewer fees, and delivered it to our Controller’s Office. So, I think I earned my salary that day.
Another highlight has been working on the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook… And I know some people don’t understand a lot of things, like why we need it, why couldn’t we use the money or move the money. Some people refuse to see what the true nature of what the structure is and what it will do for the South Side or for the city, if we stop fighting it and work to use it to our advantage. And I did the math…Everyone keeps talking about this from the standpoint of their convictions, saying, “I feel this or that,” as if feelings are enough. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, nobody is entitled to their own set of facts. So I sat down and used the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor studies and tourism studies from other parts of the country, to estimate how many people are actually going to come and how much are they going to spend. The results are impressive, even in the low-end. It’s like thirty thousand people a year, maybe not the first year, but that’s the low-end estimate. That could mean millions. And if you go to the high-end estimate, tens of millions of dollars in direct and indirect economic impact for Amsterdam and for the region.
So, when I came on board there was still a lot of work to be done making sure the Gateway Overlook had all the features on it that were necessary to make it this kind of economic dynamo. And in fact we are still working on it, because after we got the plans…the Thruway came back and said that they had mis-estimated the engineering costs, in the period between 2005 to 2012, when they started doing the engineering work. Costs had gone up that they didn’t anticipate. So now we are actively looking for some new sources of funding. The structure itself will be completed, the historical interpretation will be there, but some of the public art we wanted will have to wait until we raise the money [to finish]. It is an example of a long-term economic project, which may take a few years, but will generate large amounts of money. But it has to be worked on now. Those are some of the highlights, and there have been many more. It’s been a fascinating year and a half.
Compass: Did the proposal to de-fund your position catch you by surprise?
Von Hasseln: Yes and no. I’ve been before [the council] several times… I’ve given them written explanations. I think I’m the only department head who routinely gives them….an eight page presentation…There are several major components to what I do…community development, economic development, planning, economic emergency recovery, as well as the general administrative functions. What I do here, four or five people do up at the county. So I’m the only one who gives them a detailed report on what we are working on, what has succeeded, what has failed, and I project this year, two years, five years and beyond. So, I would think that they knew what I was doing. I went into my department hearing, as all department heads have to do, with my budget and I was asked [about certain expenses] but there was no talk of “why can’t someone else do your job?” It was never mentioned until it [was brought up] at a Common Council meeting that was convened for nine o’clock Saturday morning, wasn’t even brought up until after the mayor and the only reporter that were there had left. And the same time, while the council were [discussing de-funding] my position in the council chamber, I was actually up in this room, working on my own time, to finish up a special supplement to the Legislative Gazette, which is about Amsterdam.
So in that sense it was a shock…This is a bad idea all around. Do we really want to go back to the way it was before? What message are we sending to developers, particularly a giant casino developer?…[Amsterdam] funded an economic development director, now they want to de-fund one…Those people who want to spend millions in Amsterdam, they watch us like hawks. These are people who come up to me and tell me everything about Amsterdam, and they Google and read the paper and watch the news. So, now [the council] is arguing whether to fund an Economic Development office, and is that the message we need to send to [investors] when we are saying, “bring your millions and put them here?” I think there’s not a lot of clear thinking going on about this. I think a lot of it has to do with personal and political agendas.
Read part two of this interview here
(Photos by Tim Becker)