Mayor Steve Noble and a team of city and county officials, along with community members, worked 20-hour days in an ultimately successful effort to secure $10 million for Uptown Kingston through a fiercely competitive state grant program. This week, Noble and team members talked about the effort — and what comes next.
The award, announced with much fanfare by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Keegan Ales last week, comes through the state’s “Downtown Revitalization Initiative.” The program allocates $10 million to one community in each of New York’s 10 economic development regions. The funds can be used for a wide array of projects, including infrastructure, economic development and beautification. Applications are scored by the same Regional Economic Development councils — appointed by Cuomo — which vet funding requests made by communities through state agencies in an annual process known informally as “The Upstate Hunger Games.”
The program rolled out last year when communities around the state were informed of the funding opportunity and given a short window to prepare applications. In Kingston, Noble’s team scrambled to put together an application targeting Midtown. The city was a finalist in the process — the team got a chance to pitch their proposal to the regional council — but ultimately the award for the Mid-Hudson region went to Middletown. In assessing the failure to win the grant, Noble and fellow team members decided that Midtown Kingston might not have fit with DRI criteria that called for money to be directed towards compact, walkable urban areas with well-defined boundaries.
“The first thing on the application is ‘compact,’” recalls city communications director and DRI team member Megan Weiss-Rowe. “And I looked at the map of Midtown, which goes all the way over to Foxhall Avenue and over to the other side of Broadway and it was clear that it was not very compact.”
The team said they think the Midtown application also suffered from the neighborhood’s largely residential character in a process that favors areas that have seen recent business growth and private investment. With those factors in mind, the team opted to shift the focus of the new application to the city’s Stockade District. The Uptown business district, they believed would be a better fit for the DRI criteria based on its density, a blossoming real estate market and a rush of new investment in restaurants, boutiques and other small businesses. Team member and city Grants Manager Kristen Wilson said bringing the DRI money to the Stockade District, traditionally one of the Kingston’s wealthier neighborhoods, would indirectly benefit Midtown, home to the community’s poorest census tracts and, in fact, the entire city. “The idea is for Uptown to be to support people living in Midtown by creating jobs within walking distance,” said Wilson.
All hands on deck
As was the case last year, word of the DRI opportunity was passed down with little notice. The team had just 10 days to pivot their focus from Midtown to the Stockade District and come up with an entirely new application. The committee charged with the task, in addition to Noble, Weiss-Rowe and Wilson included Community Development Director Brenna Robinson, Tim Weidemann, an official with the county economic development office loaned to the city by County Executive Mike Hein, and Kingston artist and business owner Micah Blumenthal, who served as a community representative. The team solicited input from other interested parties and dozens of letters of support for the application. In a series of late-night sessions, some running well past midnight, the team drafted a new 13-page application laying out the Stockade District’s strengths and what could be accomplished with an infusion of state money.
The application notes new investment in the area bringing new life to underutilized assets like Dietz Stadium, where the Kingston Stockade FC semipro soccer team has brought big crowds into the neighborhood for the past two summers. The application also references the district’s status as a transportation hub that serves as a gateway to the city and the entire Catskills region.
The application outlines a series of projects that have been studied and planned, but never implemented to due to lack of funding. Among them is a long-sought public Wi-Fi system for the area, and a 2009 plan to transform the Adirondack Trailways bus station on Washington Avenue into a larger, more modern “intermodal” transit center. The application also cites a long-planned proposal to improve traffic flow in and through the neighborhood by reversing the direction of Wall and Fair streets, new coordinated traffic signals and the creation of a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly streetscape.
Facilities improvements at Dietz Stadium, a proposed “food hub” in a vacant building on Wall Street and the planned redevelopment of a municipal parking lot into a garage and mixed-use building also made the list of projects that could benefit from the money. The funding, the application reads could also be used to raise an aging levee to reduce the risk of flooding at Kingston Plaza and create a park-like setting around the ruins of a 17th century farmhouse on Frog Alley.
“They saw that we had partners, they saw some progress and they saw that we were ready to implement,” said Noble. “We were able to demonstrate that we were ready to use this money to showcase what Kingston is all about.”
Seeking to preserve
In addition to the bricks-and-mortar plans, Noble and his team said they believed the application’s focus on “equitable development” helped sway the REDC in the city’s favor. Since taking office, Noble has stressed the need to push for an economic development model that does not push existing residents and businesses out or create an unsustainable economic “bubble.” In May, the city hosted a forum on equitable development and it included one the ideas that emerged from the event — the creation of a community land trust to preserve affordability and stabilize real estate markets — in the DRI application. “The DRI has the potential to support these kinds of new initiatives that you don’t usually see in small cities, or even in large cities yet,” said Noble.
The team acknowledged that $10 million would not fund all or the plans included in the DRI application, or even one of the larger proposals. Figuring out how to direct the money will be collaborative effort between the city and a planning team dispatched by the state. Over the coming months, Noble said, that effort would include a more detailed examination of potential uses for the money and public input. Because of the DRI’s relative newness, Noble said much remains unclear about the exact process of developing an action plan.
“No one has handed us a manual and said, ‘Congratulations, you won, here’s what you have to do,” said Noble. “We’re figuring that out as we go along.”