Who will be the next owner of a large building on the former IBM campus in the town of Ulster, and to what use will it be put? One county official and a member of the public asked for more transparency on these and other questions at a January 11 public hearing held by the Ulster County Legislature, which is in the process of seeking a buyer for the property that came into the county’s hands following a foreclosure in November of 2019.
“I am here tonight as the watchdog for the people of Ulster County.” said Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher. “Ulster County taxpayers are already very invested in this property including $3.8 million in back taxes and upwards of $700,000 in 2020 expenses for repairs, painting and bringing the building up to code. We have another $2.9 million in the capital plan going forward.”
Back in November, the legislature voted in favor, 18 to 5, to continue to maintain the property of what is now called Ulster County Enterprise West, formerly the Bank of America building at TechCity, formerly an IBM office building, at a cost of $399,282. That decision didn’t go without debate – some legislators said they didn’t want to act like the landlords of this property, while others used the analogy that they would never shut their furnace off in the winter just to save money.
Additionally, the legislature amended the 2020-2025 capital improvement program’s fund budget and authorized the preliminary reconstruction of the building, which will be paid through bonds. The county also invested $137,000 to separate the electric and gas lines to the building from the rest of Tech City.
“This hearing is in disposition of this parcel to an LDC,” said Gallagher, referring to the acronym for a local development corporation.. “That is the nonprofit entity type commonly used when a government surpluses property for a development. LDC’s do not have the same transparency requirements as municipality governments.”
She said she was urging the legislature to be more transparent about the potential uses for the former IBM building (as well as any other buildings on the campus that may be foreclosed on over the next year and a half) and include the community in any further discussions.
“Let’s go beyond performative democracy here in Ulster County to ensure transparency and solicit input, particularly when discussing the single largest economic development opportunity in the county’s history,” said Gallagher.
At least one local organization is interested in occupying some space in the building. The Farm Bridge, which already has a presence on the east side of the campus, has created a proposal to occupy 15 percent of the Ulster County Enterprise West building.
Ulster County’s Director of Economic Development Tim Weidemann was also on the call.
“This is a transformative opportunity for Ulster County and our economy,” said Weidemann. “We recognize there is a lot of interest in this site and to be transparent … in this process and offer our commitment to do so,” said Weidemann. “Although that is important, it is always important to recognize opportunities have consistently passed by us as a county due to the lack of development opportunity at this site as it was held by its previous owner.”
Weidemann said it is important for the county to advance forward with this redevelopment, especially when there is economic pressure from Covid-19.
Resident Sarah Wenk called for more public involvement.
“I am very excited about the possibility of something useful and interesting happening at TechCity, but I’ve been a little dismayed about how little transparency there’s been about what’s happening there and how much confusion there has been particularly in the public about what’s going on,” said Wenk. “As someone who tries to be aware of what’s happening in the county, I have no idea what’s happening, what’s true and what’s not true. With a project of this size that has a potential of positive impact, it would be great to have a lot more information available to the citizens involved.”
“We take that very seriously,” said Weidemann about the other two comments at the public hearing that called for transparency. “One thing to note is we need to move forward. We are going to go through this process to get input and that will be the first round. We will see what, if anything, we can move on right away and continue to gather public input.”
Weidemann said he is working on establishing an advisory committee as the site is redeveloped. Later this week, he said he’d be putting out a request for expressions of interest to provide an opportunity for local businesses, developers and firms that are interested to work on the redevelopment effort.
“We feel confident that the condition of the buildings can be occupied and we feel the time has come to really put out the word and see what interest there is in the buildings,” said Weidemann. “Right now, given the overall market for office space is pretty depressed, we don’t expect a lot of interest in buyers to purchase a 400,000-square-foot office building, but we do anticipate from the conversations we’ve been having over the summer and in the fall, there is a healthy interest from a mix of other kinds of users.”
The request for expressions of interest will seek potential lessees and buyers while the county continues to redevelop the site. Weidemann expects there will be additional efforts made to this end in the future.
“There will be subsequent opportunities later on for other kinds of uses for other parts of the site,” said Weidemann.