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Downtown Revitalization competition winners offer advice as new round begins

Payne Horning
Construction is underway in downtown Oswego on a Complete Streets project that aims to improve aesthetics and conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. It's partially funded by a $10 million award from New York state.

It was three years ago that Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Oswego with a check for $10 million. The Port City was the first in central New York to win the Downtown Revitalization Initative (DRI) competition. Now, construction has finally begun on the project.

The city is currently building a small pocket park to create a public gathering space downtown and aesthetic and functional improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists on Bridge Street. Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow says 11 of the 12 projects funded by the DRI are under construction and three of those are expected to be complete by summer's end.

"There's a lot going on," Barlow said. "It's really rewarding - people are starting to see and feel, in terms of congestion and disruption, some of the changes."

The state is now funding a fourth round of the competition. Utica, Fulton, Cazenovia, and other municipalities in central and northern New York are once again submitting applications. As they embark on this journey, Barlow recommends they prepare a sold and realistic application.

"Ultimately, the heavy lifting comes before you win so that you don’t have to juggle so many things once you’re declared the winner," Barlow said.

Watertown won the award in 2017. The city's mayor Joe Butler says key to developing a DRI plan is finding partners who have the necessary financial backing. One of the developers who received funding for facade renovations in downtown Watertown is now turning down the money because the project became cost-prohibitive. That $1.2 million grant will now need to be reallocated.

"This is a reimbursement program," Butler said. "You have to go in thinking what are the most viable projects given the people who want to pursue these and do they have the resources to get this off the ground."

Despite that minor setback, the developer is still moving forward with his project on his own and Watertown residents will see some separate facade improvements on downtown businesses this summer according to Butler.

Residents of Rome will also see changes in the coming months. The city, which won the award in 2017, is currently in the process of clearing the recently demolished Liberty-George parking garage to create a parking lot and make way for an apartment complex. Rome Mayor Jackie Izzo says the key to a successful Downtown Revitalization project is getting the community involved from the start.

"Whatever you put forward in your plan, that’s your starting point if you get an award," Izzo said. "So when you put your local planning committee together after you’re awarded a DRI, you go through a six-month process of vetting these plans and then getting to the strategic investment plan, which are the final projects you put in the timeline. It’s really been a difficult process for some communities to gather a consensus opinion during that six-month time period, so when you put your initial plan in you really need to know then that you have a lot of buy-in from local stakeholders."

Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin says that community engagement must include voices from every part of the city.

"When you involve people from throughout your community, you get a broader spectrum of ideas and a more fine-tuned product," Tobin said.

Cortland won its award in 2017. Thus far, it has helped fund the opening of The Vine, a new health and fitness club, and start work on the planned reconstruction of two blocks of Main Street.

For the cities that do win, Tobin urges patience. It's a multi-step process that involves lots of paperwork, but well worth it he says. Equally important, Izzo says, is for winning municipalities to use the award strategically to continue the development of the downtown area.

"We figure we won’t be successful unless we leverage our DRI maybe two or three times past the $10 million," Izzo said. "We’re already getting different projects to the downtown area because of the DRI, so we are leveraging those dollars to create more jobs, more business opportunities and that’s what it’s really all about."

Applications are due May 31.

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.