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Utica makes headway selling vacant commercial properties

Gino Geruntino/WRVO file photo
The former Roosevelt School on Utica's east side was purchased by the Municipal Housing Authority. It has since been torn down.

Over the years, as businesses in Utica left or closed, the city has faced a problem of what to do with the empty buildings. In recent years, Utica has ramped up its efforts to sell these vacant commercial properties in an attempt to generate sales and property tax revenues for the city.

Since 2012, the city has sold at least eight vacant commercial properties to private developers, including a former Superfund site that was dormant for more than a decade. The buildings, which must be empty for at least three years before the city can foreclose on them, are scattered throughout Utica. Fourteen properties are currently being marketed by the city's Urban Renewal Agency.

"In almost every instance, it's a giant transformation," says Brian Thomas, the city's urban and economic development commissioner. "By the time the city takes ownership of the property, they've generally been vacant for at least three years. a lot of them have been vandalized at that point. Stripped of any value, plumbing, electrical wiring."

But Thomas says investors still believe these formerly occupied buildings have potential.

"There is an interest out there for these kinds of properties and for more development in the city," Thomas said. "We're still having success in selling those properties, even given the hurdles that these buildings and individual properties have."

Thomas is quick to point out that although Utica does have a demolition budget for unsalvageable buildings, tearing down a building is an expensive process. Mayor Robert Palmieri agreed, saying the city prefers selling the buildings and preserving them over tearing them down.

"Why destroy something for the sake of destroying it, when there is an opportunity for growth in revitalizing these buildings," Palmieri said. "Every building that we're talking about, there's been millions of dollars invested into it."

Choosing a new owner doesn't come from rash decision making, either. Palmieri says the city goes through a detailed process to pick the right owner.

"When we are selling buildings, we are looking for business plans," Palmieri said. "We're just not taking the highest bidder. We're looking for someone that has a mission statement, as we do for our city, and a blueprint and the best practices."

When those properties eventually do sell, jobs are created and much needed sales and property tax revenues are injected into the city.

"Not only the immediate benefits of the construction dollars for the building itself, but for businesses that do go in there, there are employees that will be located in those buildings that will have to buy homes in the area, that have to buy groceries and buy vehicles," Thomas said. "So there's multiple spin-off impacts from the sale of these properties."

Palmieri believes those sales go even further. He says his goal is to turn Utica into the "best little city in America."

"It's the continued growth, and within continued growth that means a lot of hard work," Palmieri explained. "You don't stand by watching how great things have been in the last three years. You move forward. And again, I think it's an opportunity for an investor to invest in the city of Utica."