Talking about progress

The state contributed $1.2 million to the mile-long Hudson Landing promenade on both sides of the City of Kingston/Town of Ulster municipal boundary. Smiles abounded as county executive Mike Hein and then-Kingston mayor James Sottile cut the ribbon for the AVR housing project in 2010. (photo by Dan Barton)

The state contributed $1.2 million to the mile-long Hudson Landing promenade on both sides of the City of Kingston/Town of Ulster municipal boundary. Smiles abounded as county executive Mike Hein and then-Kingston mayor James Sottile cut the ribbon for the AVR housing project in 2010. (photo by Dan Barton)

I couldn’t fathom what my wife was speaking about when she first started mentioning something I heard as “the Red Sea grants” last spring. It was a busy time in our lives. We were mixing end-of-school-year business for our six-year-old with a host of work projects on both our parts. Though up here in Greene County we have a Cairo, we knew ourselves to be distant from the city only a desert away from where Moses parted the Red Sea. I figured the state must mean someplace else.

It turns out that my wife Fawn was talking about events affecting her position as gallery director at the Greene County Council for the Arts and director of Catskill’s Masters on Main Street program, which was trying to fill vacant storefronts with art-school art. Applications were being solicited for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to replace the old Empire Zones with a weightier package of competitive regional economic development community grants, nicknamed for their acronym, RED-C.

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A July 16 state deadline was putting pressure on us. The grant cycle at hand involved some $738 million statewide, and we understood that there was going to be a new emphasis this year on the arts and tourism-related funding.

The process included the granting of “tokens” to be used as password for the Consolidated Funding Application, or CFA system. There was a registration process for non-profits working directly with the state agencies. Involved were such weighty combinations of alphabet letters as Empire State Development (ESD), the state Canal Corporation, Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC), Homes and Community Renewal, New York Power Authority (NYPA), Department of Labor, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHC), the departments of State, Environmental Conservation (DOD and DEC), and Agriculture and Markets, and the state Council on the Arts (NYSCA). We were told there was a broad potpourri of priority categories, including direct assistance to businesses, community development, agricultural economic development, waterfront revitalization, energy improvements, environmental improvements, sustainability, workforce development and low-cost financing.

In a bureaucratic sort of way, the instructions were meant to be encouraging. “Many changes have been made to make navigating through the process of filling out an application easier,” explained the instructions my wife showed me early on in the process. “It is now easier for applicants to go back to questions already answered. Additionally, information is saved more frequently and applicants have the ability to directly upload attachments into the system.”

“Over 30 public workshops” would be held to aid the process. Review of proposals would be by “appropriate work group,” with final decisions by “the full council,” under the direction of lieutenant governor Robert Duffy. Applicants were asked to contact their regional councils, and local reps on each, for answers during their application process. The Catskills-area counties are divided among four regions.

Questioning the process

My wife started to talk with friends in other local arts organizations. What was the most effective way to get a slice of this huge pie of funding?

“Regional councils are about making state government work better for businesses to create an environment that will put New Yorkers back to work,” read the directions. “Each council is staffed by representatives from a broad spectrum of state agencies who will help identify priority projects and potential funding sources within their agencies and then directly assist applicants throughout every step of the process.”

By mid-June, the state first started announcing its new round of RED-C applications. The deadline was a month away. Fawn had worked up a project with a pair of cultural organizations in Prattsville, which was still reeling from the effects of Tropical Storm Irene nine months earlier, and in Hunter, where a private trust, the Catskill Mountain Foundation, runs a community development and arts organization. Similar efforts, we found, were under way on the part of the Thomas Cole House in Catskill, as well as by Village of Catskill (in tandem with Greene County) and several entities around Windham, another tourism-based community which had received economic development funding in 2011.

I found out about many applications from further afield, too. A push was under way to complete land purchases and construction on a massive rail-trail network in the eastern portion of Columbia County, hooking into similar efforts in Dutchess County to the south. There were a number of waterfront projects in Hudson. Agricultural industry efforts around the region seemed centered around the Farm To Table Co-Packers enterprise that’s been in Ulster County’s old Tech City complex for some years. There were significant community housing efforts in the Mid-Hudson region, a long-expected Kingston waterfront development along the Hudson, and a major high-tech web project out of Marist College based on the building of a new cloud computing center there.

“Final attachments related to program specific requirements should be uploaded on the system,” said the instructions for the July 16 deadline. Though the deadline was concurrent with the first weeks of our son’s summer vacation, Fawn managed to complete the application on time. “Scoring by the appropriate regional councils and agencies is expected to be finalized by the end of August,” said the state. “The agencies that administer the program will exercise due diligence to determine relevant legal issues and potential disqualifying concerns, and assign a technical score to the CFA.”

In early September, the promised public meetings started occurring, in most cases without much advance notice. The Hudson Register-Star reported on a sparsely-attended September 7 meeting at the local library, announced only on the regional economic development agency’s website three days earlier. Those who showed up asked how to apply and were told it was too late. When they asked who had applied, they were told that information wasn’t available yet.

When members of the Greene County audience asked how they were being represented, they were told that their man, Bank of Greene County president Don Gibson, had resigned from the regional advisory council earlier. My wife said she had heard he had quit out of frustration.

How long can one expect to wait for final payment from the State? Chip Seamans, President and General Manager at Windham Mountain in Greene County, was granted $1.5 million in the first round of RED-C grants announced in December of 2011. His project, Destination Windham, is to be a revamping of the ski mountain as an all-season tourism destination.

“We have yet to spend all the money and submit our receipts,” Seamans said this week. “We are hoping to finish the project this fall and be reimbursed next winter.”

Even though 2011 was lambasted by many for having gotten started late, and been run in a confusing fashion, the Windham exec had nothing but kudos for the program…as did most folks in northern and western New York, which received the largest sums of RED-C grants its first year out.

Robert Duffy defended what happened. “This process is transformational,” he said. “He [Cuomo] did not choose to pit upstate against downstate. It is an equal, fair process.”

Yes and no. All ten economic development regions got roughly similar magnitudes of state CFA money in 2012, ranging from a high of $96.2 million for the Finger Lakes Region to a low of $50.3 million for the Capital Region. A big fuss was made over the fact that what turned out to be five regions, including the mid-Hudson, got to split an extra $200 million, $40 million for each. The populations and economic conditions in the ten regions are dramatically different from each other. In the most recent round of these allegedly job-creating awards, New York City got $6 per capita, Long Island $21 per capita, and the Mid-Hudson Region $40 per capita. In contrast, the Mohawk Valley was awarded $120 per capita, the Southern Tier $149 per capita, and the North Country $208 per capita. The Capital Region was awarded $47 per capita.

Secondly, the state government, proudly referring to the process as bottom-up rather than top-down, claimed that the regional advisory councils had made the funding recommendations. Though the regional advisory councils did indeed exercise their right of recommendation, the decisions were made in the governor’s office. The Mid-Hudson’s regional council was told, according to its co-chair Len Schleifer, that its priorities were given 20 per cent weight in the final project rankings. And calls made over recent weeks to those whom we know serving on advisory councils were invariably referred to press people in the governor’s office.

Third and finally, the CFA is about economic development only in the broadest sense of the phrase. Consisting of a mixed bag of ESD stimulus money and other-agency funding, its funding went to a broad-ranging list of community development projects. Though a mislabeling, this emphasis on “soft development’” is not necessarily a bad thing. Economic development often benefits from improvements in the physical, environmental, cultural and human infrastructures of the state. Whether an investment will eventually prove a wise or a foolish use of state funds isn’t always known when it is made.

Betting on winners and losers

Announcement of the second round of grants came out on December 8. Greene County was awarded funding for nine projects that involved $1.584 million, plus $950,000 more split with other counties. The cultural tourism corridor project my wife wrote a grant proposal for got $150,000 in state arts money, about half of what was requested.

Some $600,000 went to a Village of Catskill walking loop, and $250,000 to repair two hurricane-devastated parks in Prattsville. The Catskill Mountain Housing Development Corp. got $300,000 toward housing projects in Prattsville and Windham. Infrastructure engineering projects were awarded a total of $84,000 from DEC. Some $600,000 in NYSERDA money will be spent on schemes for heating with wood-pellet boilers in the region. Albany tourism got $300,000 in ESD money for tourism planning, and the Cole House got $50,000 to further develop art trails.

At first, all I heard were hosannahs in our household. A lot of good local projects had gotten funding.

Just south of us the Mid Hudson region received $92.8 million for 84 projects — including some $25 million in bonus money. We thought the $775,000 for the food hub in Kingston was great, as was the three-million-dollar cloud computing center down in Poughkeepsie, with its local job training and cheaper web-storage possibilities for everyone.

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Important for Ulster County were the million dollars for advanced manufacturing awarded to The Solar Energy Consortium. The $1.5-millionto help convert a surplus Kingston school (Sophie Finn) for use by Ulster County Community College was significant. And that mile-long Hudson Landing promenade on both sides of the City of Kingston/Town of Ulster municipal boundary ($1.2 million) would be fun. The Mohonk Preserve got $500,000 for new land purchases between the village and the Shawangunk ridgeline in New Paltz.

Also funded were a plethora of smaller projects throughout the Mid Hudson region. Of the $65 million in state money allocated by county in this funding round, about $23 million will be invested in Westchester County, $22 million in Orange, almost eight million in Dutchess, six in Ulster, four in Sullivan, almost two in Rockland, and $375,000 in Putnam.

According to conventional thinking, government is not good at betting on market winner and losers. But governmental activities inescapably provide the social milieu, the incentives and the context in which markets operate. So these public investments continue. Why not shed light on them, therefore, so that the public can participate better in judging their effectiveness? In doing that, the Cuomo administration seems to have unearthed a suppressed hunger for public participation that has added to his political popularity.

Who to call?

Several weeks later, the new realities of contemporary economic development are settling in. My wife has to implement the arts tourism project she envisioned, coordinating meetings with cash-strapped cultural organizations. But there’s no one to answer questions regarding payments and reporting structures.

“This all has bugs, and the bugs are significant,” she tells me. “There’s no timeline. The main office is unresponsive, as is the arts council, the agency we worked with. They have everybody sitting on the edges of their seats now. If I knew who to call I’d be able to relax.”

Looking through all the pages of information available to date on these grants, I find that as far as I can tell funds won’t be made available until projects are completed. Presumably, matching grants and in-kind contributions will be charted somewhere. This is the modern way of public funding. You say something’s budgeted, you take bank loans or whatever, and then you wait to get paid back, hoping that nothing happens in the halls of government that results in your being overlooked. After-the-fact budget cutting for state cultural organizations is not unheard of.

When I tell my wife what I’m suspecting, she sighs.

But then she has to get back to the work she and so many others in the lower ends of the state’s new $738-million regional economic development sweepstakes have committed to.

Talk about progress.

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