Interview with CED Director Robert von Hasseln (part two)



During our conversation on May 19th, Robert von Hasseln, Director of Community and Economic Development,  spoke to me about the current projects he was working on, a little history, and the prospect of his position being de-funded by the common council.

Compass: At the May 13th public hearing on the budget, you brought up some persuasive arguments as to why your position as director shouldn’t be eliminated. Can you further explain your arguments using a cost/benefit model?

Von Hasseln: There is one cost/benefit model that overrides every other one here. Simply, it’s an equation. You want to lower taxes. Everyone says taxes are too high. How do you lower taxes? Well, you can either cut expenses or you increase the tax base. An increase of the tax base means everybody has to pay less. There is a cap on how much you can increase your expenses, but there is also a “basement” if you will, of how much you can cut. You can’t cut your way to economic prosperity. You can’t cut to significant, sustainable savings on your tax rates, and that’s because a lot of things that make up your taxes are beyond the control of your local government: the unfunded mandates from the state, certain laws that require we do things in a more expensive fashion, health care costs, insurance, and then there are some things we don’t have the political will to…cut. So, on one side of the equation, you’ll only be able to cut so much, you can never keep cutting and keep cutting, and keep saving yourself more and more money…

The only way you can make taxes go down, in the long run, is to improve the local economy, get more people here spending more money, more people paying taxes, not people individually paying higher taxes. If you have a larger tax base it means everybody can pay less. So, in essence the cost benefit of it is this: you can never permanently, cut your way to permanent tax savings; it’s not going to work. The only way to permanently lower your taxes is to improve the local economy. If we want to do this we have to start finding other ways to go about it, other than the way we’ve been doing it for the last sixty years.

Compass: What agencies do you coordinate or confer with?

Von Hasseln I work with every department in the city, I work with the county…but the two I most work with are Urban Renewal and AIDA. Aida isn’t really a part of the city, it is a semi-autonomous governmental agency, that works with the city. They don’t report to the mayor; they have their own executive board. The director of AIDA has already written a letter to the council saying he thinks my office should be continued, that we work together on projects, and we also work on different projects. It’s the same thing with URA, [Urban Renewal Agency] we are work on the same projects but we’re also running our own independent lanes, because Nick [Zabawsky] is more concerned with particular kinds of grants. AIDA is more concerned with industrial types of operations, and basically everything that falls between the two is mine, although I also assist them. I probably talk to Nick once or twice a day, I also talk to Jody [Zakrevsky] four or five times a day.

One of the things that people never seem to understand is that it’s hard enough to write grants, and I write some grants, they write others, it’s grant administration or grant management that is the tough thing. It may take you putting in a telephone book’s worth of information to get a chance at a big grant, but to run it by the time you’re done you’ll need a file cabinet to keep all the paperwork the government is going to require you to keep. You have to have lead based paint plan certificates, paperwork to show you made a due diligence to search for women and minority owned businesses, you have to show compliance with this act, that act… So, URA and AIDA simply don’t have the time [to take over my responsibilities]…There’s no place you can reassign this work without causing a problem.

Compass: What would you like to accomplish this coming year and in the long term?

Von Hasseln I keep a list of projects and the further out you go the more outlandish they get. I still think that one of the things we need to do is have a certain “tipping point” of attractions here in Amsterdam. Not just to attract tourists, but also to attract people who want a sense of place. I’m from someplace. I could live anywhere, but I choose to live here because it’s nicer, there’s more to do or it’s better for my family. So, I’ve identified projects, out for the next ten years, that I think, at the right time, it would be good to add. For instance, I’ve been working with Historic Amsterdam League…we found one of the original Amsterdam trolley cars, and it would look great if it were restored and was sitting down as an exhibit on Main Street.

I’ve been working with a theater group from Buffalo that does performances down on the river on the history of the Erie Canal. We’ve been talking to them about relocating to Amsterdam, and operate on the side of the Mohawk here, as a permanent home for the theater…

We have a lot of study groups, feasibility studies, Brownfield Opportunity Act studies. Somebody has to keep them tied together. Somebody has to keep them oriented to the Comprehensive Plan. Also, to make sure they are all moving in the right direction, and a good example of that is the train station relocation. The train station is in a bad location, and it’s basically destroyed. A new one is going to be built. It doesn’t make any sense to rebuild it there again, it’s just a bad location. We can move it downtown and put it close to where it used to be, and bring it up two levels, we could connect it to the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook landing, so you will be able to walk directly from Main St. to the South Side.

How do you do that? The goal, eventually is to go for a TIGER grant, (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant), which would pay for building a new train station. They only give out one a year in upstate New York. In order for us to get [in the running] we have to “backwards plan” and say “what are we going to need?” Well, we need detailed drawings of that building and a site plan. What do we need before? We need preliminary plans and concepts. Okay, what do we need before that? An idea of the possible sites. Now that you’ve done it that way you do the the opposite. We’ve been working with DOT and CSX and we’ve identified five possible sites.

In the Amsterdam Waterfront Heritage BOA, the consultants there are going to pick the best sites and make a conceptual drawing of the site. Then after that, we just concluded this NY Rising project, that identified relocating the train station as a priority. When the NY Rising money becomes available we’ll budget a certain portion of that to [pay for] the detailed drawings and plans. Then, by making sure all these study groups are working together, we’ll have a telephone book size package ready to go to the federal government that says sites are shovel ready, feasibility studies done, economic analysis done, consider us to move the train station. A few years down the road there will be a new train station that also connects us directly from downtown, or Main St., to the south side.

Compass: With the added benefit that potential passengers can wander up Main St. or Church St., visit shops, eat at the local eateries…

Von Hasseln: Yes. And also, it will be inter-modal, which not only means your buses and cabs will be there, but also eventually, perhaps rental bike stands. It’s going to take a lot to turn Amsterdam around but I can see the right pieces falling into place. What I don’t see is a lot of people clamoring to ask “Do we know where we are going? Are we taking the right steps toward [securing our financial goals] or are we just “pinballing” from issue to issue?”

Compass: At the Mighty Waters Symposium at the United Presbyterian Church on May 14th, there were at least twenty public officials or private sector representatives gathered to discuss revitalization projects statewide. What role did Amsterdam officials play in coordinating this event and is this program a symbol of what you would like to see more of in our local communities?

Von Hasseln: Basically, the Mayor hosted it and I organized it at her direction. What I thought was great was that we had a wonderful group of people who were all involved in waterfront revitalization up and down this portion of the Mohawk. Sometimes we don’t get together enough and talk, share ideas, and work in combination with each other, and keep each other up on the latest. For example, I briefed on the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook, not only as an example of economic development and cultural heritage success, but also because I needed to bring those people up to speed. It’s going to have an impact in Nelliston. It’s going to have an impact in Fort Plain, and they should be prepared to take advantage of that…The other thing is, some of the players in the room will be important in deciding which projects get promoted, which projects get funded. So, it’s a great opportunity for them to hear what the people from the valley feel is important. We had a few of people from the Department of State, who will do the ultimate decision making on waterfront projects and government efficiency projects and certain other categories under the Consolidated Funding Application process.

In a phone conversation last Friday, the day after the common council voted on the budget, I asked vonHasseln about the outcome of the vote.

Compass: Tell me how it went for you, Rob.

Von Hasseln: From what I understand they put all my lines back in, except for the Historian’s salary. When I was hired to do this I told them I could do both jobs but I can’t legally draw both salaries.

Compass: Now that that is settled, what is your first order of business?

Von Hasseln: Just to continue working on the things I was before: the casino, the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook, a couple of prospective new businesses. Everything I was doing before but now I don’t have to worry about being interrupted.

Read part one of this interview here

Jay Towne

Jay Towne is a resident of Amsterdam, has published six books and is the writer and director of a radio drama, Any Good Thing, that currently airs on WOPG.