Throughout its history, The Sanford Clock Tower has been at the heart of the City of Amsterdam’s economy. In the early 1900’s it was headquarters for Stephen Sanford’s carpet enterprise, and in the 1970’s and 1980’s it served as the headquarters for Coleco, makers of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and Colecovision video game system.
After a period of abandonment, the building was acquired by entrepreneurs Brett McCarthy and Terry Barker in 2001. Originally, they operated a beverage business from the location and rented out a few other spaces in the building as a secondary source of income. But in recent years, the two have changed their focus and are now looking at ideas to bring even more tenants into the iconic building.
One of those ideas is to use a portion of the sixth floor of the building, which previously served as the executive offices of Coleco, to create an incubator where new businesses can utilize a shared reception area, conference room, and work-spaces, as well as take advantage of professional mentoring and networking opportunities.
Currently, the building houses 20 small businesses, including Giant Solutions, and RDR Audio, as well as Amsterdam Oral Surgery and Implant Center, which McCarthy said plans to open with the next few weeks. During an interview and tour of the building on Tuesday, McCarthy discussed his vision to expand even further with the incubator concept.
“It’s something that Terry [Barker] and I have talked about for years and years,” said McCarthy. “With the vast size of this building, he and I thought…bring in new businesses and then if they turn out to work out, they’ll grow here and then they’ll stay here. So it’s a mixture of trying to get new tenants…also giving an opportunity to somebody who probably couldn’t get into business or had a tough time starting.”
“Starting a business is very hard,” said McCarthy. “Especially if you don’t have a business background, family who is in business, or anybody to lean on. It kind of stops a lot of people from even getting started. And these people may have a great idea, but no idea on how to capitalize on it.”
McCarthy is hoping to provide incentives for professionals such as accountants or lawyers to rent space in the building, offering reduced rents in exchange for commitments to spend time mentoring or advising start-up businesses in the incubator.
He also hopes that even if a start-up in the incubator fails, that networking between entrepreneurs may help create future partnerships.
In order to renovate the sixth floor, McCarthy said he is hoping to secure a New York Main Street program grant, which could potentially provide $500,000 toward the total $800,000 he estimates is needed. Amsterdam’s mayor and common council recently approved a resolution supporting the application for the grant by the Montgomery County Business Development Center (MCBDC).
When reached for comment about the project, Danielle Whelly, economic development specialist with the MCDBC said, “Brett and his business partner have done an incredible amount of work to restore the building and have utilized substantial amounts of private funding to get to the stage they are at. With assistance like [the NY Main Street grant], they will be able to continue to grow and also help other businesses in the community to grow in the process.”
In addition to the grant to renovate the sixth floor, the MCDBC is also applying for a New York State Microenterprise grant which would allow the county to supply funding for new small businesses.
“The microenterprise grant would assist us in establishing a program to provide financial assistance to the small businesses and the startup companies that would be housed in this space,” explained Whelly. “If awarded, business owners would apply for funding (with a maximum amount set and equity match requirement) and if chosen would be required to participate in an entrepreneurial training program. The training is a requirement of the grant and will teach the fundamentals of owning and operating a business.”
Whelly added that if the grant is awarded, Amsterdam businesses would not necessarily have to be part of the incubator program at the Clock Tower in order to apply for the program.
“With these two grants, we would be able to help [McCarthy and Barker] to start a small business feeder system in which business owners would start in the incubator and graduate out to their own space on the other floors of the Clock Tower building. With the opportunity to survive past the initial seed stages of start-up businesses, this type of system would help to establish more successful small businesses in Amsterdam. The idea being, if they start in our community and are given the assistance needed to grow, that they will stay in the community once they become successful and increase job opportunities, revenue, and quality of life for residents,” said Whelly.
When asked about his outlook for the city’s ability to attract start-up businesses, McCarthy was guardedly optimistic and pointed out that businesses and communities rarely see “overnight success” but rather often take years to grow.
McCarthy said that when he first came to the city around 2001, the outlook looked bleak to him.
“I’m not from this area. And when I came here, there was nothing going on…literally almost no hope” McCarthy said with a laugh.
However, McCarthy said developments in the downtown area, such as the opening of Sharpshooter’s billiards and sports pub, as well as the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge, and the future construction of apartments at the Cranesville Block building, as examples of positive developments that he hopes will help attract entrepreneurs.
“I think our biggest challenge now is how we’re seen locally in Amsterdam,” said McCarthy. “I think people in Amsterdam see Amsterdam horribly. But I bring in two to three potential tenants every week that walk through our building and they’re from all over the Capital Region, Saratoga, some even out toward Utica. I’ve got a new tenant that’s moving from Buffalo…they don’t look at Amsterdam in a negative light at all or see any reason to.”
For more information about the Sanford Clock Tower, please visit sanfordclocktower.com.
(Photos by Tim Becker)