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The campaign to transform downtown Watertown continues

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)
Watertown officials hope to transform the city's downtown, Public Square, to attract more visitors and businesses to the area.

Watertown leaders are pressing forward with their goal to transform the city's downtown area despite losing out on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) competition last year. Plattsburgh ultimately captured the $10 million grant in the North Country region. But Watertown officials say that's not stalling the city's momentum.

"We’ve got so many good things going on in our downtown right now it may be as New York state didn’t see us as needing their help as much as other communities because we do have a lot of community buy in and investment," said City Councilor Mark Walczyk. "A lot of storefronts that have sat vacant are filling up, buildings that have sat dilapidated are being renewed. We’re definitely headed in the right direction." 

The city has won a separate $50,000 planning grant from the state that Watertown officials say they will use to draft a blueprint for remaking downtown. City Planning and Community Development Director Michael Lumbis said the city applied for the grant last summer after losing out on the DRI award. Lumbis thinks the grant could give Watertown a head start should there be another round of the competition. Walczyk agrees. 

"I think we've got a pretty good case for our downtown if it is renewed," Walczyk said. "I think there's a pretty good chance Watertown could win in the future."

Walcyzk said that effort is just one of many underway to advance Watertown. The Watertown Local Development Corporation (WLDC) is hiring the Retail Coach, a Mississippi-based consultant, to develop a strategic plan for the city's downtown. It will look at what businesses the city needs to reinvigorate downtown, like dining and entertainment, and how to recruit them. WLDC CEO Don Rutherford says this approach will be the first of its kind in Watertown.

"We’ve always been able to use our financial resources to put into businesses in downtown," Rutherford said. "While that has had great success and helped the local business community, it hasn’t what we feel brought in like a destination point or created a real big buzz regarding downtown."

Rutherford said the report, which will cost WLDC $40,000, is the kind of investment New York officials want to see when cities apply for any kind of state grants and competitions.

"When you’re applying to Albany for grants for your downtown, they want to see some skin in the game," Rutherford said. "They want to the local community is doing what they can to better their downtown." 

Both the downtown state grant and the strategic business report are expected later this year.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.