Oswego government and community collaborates on downtown funding

The ongoing Downtown Revitalization Initiative, a project that will bring more residents, visitors and money to downtown Oswego, has come to fruition with the community after a public meeting this past Thursday, Dec. 1.

Preserving and increasing downtown parking as well as creating better access to the waterfront were two of the many ideas put forth by the community in response to the proposed six key anchor projects. The proposal created by local government included development and restoration of Midtown Plaza, Buckhout-Jones Building featuring Children’s Museum of Oswego, Cahill Building, Flexo Wire Site, Oswego Business Incubator Center and West Pier Landing Waterfront.

When Mayor William Barlow attended Gov. Cuomo’s budget presentation January of last year, he took notes on what the governor outlined the downtown revitalization competition as.

“I was sitting there listening to some of the criteria and I knew that grant literally could have been written for the city of Oswego, so I knew we had to apply and make a run for it,” Mayor Barlow said.

The catch is it was a competition that included a pool of 121 other New York municipalities. Oswego had to directly compete against Cortland, Fulton and Auburn in the same economic region. Because of this, it was important for the Port City to come forward with the best possible plan in order to score the most points in the application process.

“When we sat down to decide what to include and how to explain the city of Oswego, we had to be very articulate and explain that our approach was to explain how Oswego is already turning the corner,” Mayor Barlow said. “We already have a lot of momentum, that’s why we doubled our application building on it and explaining how $10 million from the state of New York would be the shot in the arm, if you will, that Oswego needed to really turn into a modern upstate New York destination.”

On July 14 of this year, Gov. Cuomo announced that Oswego was selected by the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council to receive a $10 million grant, as part of the DRI, to revitalize the downtown. Oswego was one of the 10 cities that had the greatest potential among New York State’s different regions. Winners of the competition will use the money to improve urban vitality in city centers.

According to the New York State government website, “the award will include up to $300,000 in planning funds for private sector experts to work with a local planning committee to draft a Strategic Investment Plan that will identify specific economic development, transportation, and housing and community projects.”

Since then, Oswego has been assigned a planning team and is working with the New York Department of State to finalize a plan. Through several scheduled public meetings, the local government will ask for community feedback and work with the mayor-appointed local development team to fine-tune the plan.

“As of today we haven’t received a dollar,” Mayor Barlow said. “However, in our application proposal we allocated funding for certain projects in certain areas.”

Justin Rudgick is the Director of Community & Economic Development for the City of Oswego. He oversees state and federal assistance for Oswego’s neighborhoods and businesses. The office has delivered funding assistance through loans and grants for housing, public improvement, economic development and public services through projects and programs approved by the Mayor and the Common Council.

As for the DRI, the Mayor pulled him into the team as the Community & Economic Development Director to help prepare the Downtown Revitalization Initiative proposal.

“My role in the proposal was to help pull together the information on the proposed anchor projects that were identified and incorporated into the proposal, which in turn was able to exhibit leverage of additional public and private sector investment in the community,” Rudgick said.

Approximately $4.5 to $5.5 million out of the $10 million was projected to be able to leverage approximately $50+ million through the successful completion of the six anchor projects.

“It is always a possibility that some of the projects are not able to get off the ground for one reason or another,” Rudgick said. “In having said that, the DRI planning process is very much a public participation process in which we are encouraging the community to attend the public meetings to provide their input to help shape the overall plan for the downtown revitalization.”

13th District Legislator Chairman Kevin Gardner was a bit of an outsider when it came to the development of the DRI plan. Instead of development, he focused on utilizing some resources within the county to help direct it.

When the mayor presented the plan to him, it was then his responsibility to make sure the legislators in Albany understood the county is in support of all the ideas that were coming forward. He believes the governor recognized that the government and community are trying to improve the area, and can improve it even further with this money from the state.

“We have a well-known lake that people come to see for sunsets in the summertime,” Gardner said. “There’s nobody really using Jet Skis or kayaks out on the lake or even in the river; it’s not being utilized properly. We say we want to revitalize the area near the river and the lake, but the question is how do we do it with the current structure of the city?”

Downtown Oswego boasts a 97 percent store for occupancy rating, which is incredibly high for a small city. Rudgick said attracting college students into downtown Oswego beyond the nightlife will be factored into the revitalization efforts and increase this percentage further.

“Instead of going to Ruby Tuesday’s out east or heading to Route 31 in the Clay area, now they come downtown instead,” Mayor Barlow said. “It happened on its own as private business owners began investing in the community.”

The city of Oswego also highlighted Route 104 as another major element of their revitalization plan. Since it runs through downtown, the objective is to make it more aesthetically appealing and navigable. This will result in a more live-able and walk-able downtown while attracting more businesses to open up along the route.

The community was happiest with the plan for state Route 104 being highlighted. Parking on the route has always been a topic of concern with citizens because it disrupts the flow of traffic.

“If you count parking lanes, the route is a six-lane highway that divides the city from downtown,” Mayor Barlow said. “You can’t even discuss a quaint, quiet, attractable downtown when you have a six-lane highway and tractor-trailers blowing through the middle of downtown.”

The Route 104 Complete Streets Plan covers different ways to beautify the route and traffic calming measures. Slowing down the route will allow passers-by to observe the revamped downtown and see what it has to offer.

Another thing highlighted in the general plan was the work of the Oswego Renaissance Association and the enhancement of downtown neighborhoods. No money was specifically allocated in the plan for ORA since it already has significant fundraising, but it was included to show how the community is taking charge.

The ORA also helped emphasize economic development and job retention or creation. To convince people to live somewhere, you need jobs, much more than anything else. Most of all, the association has helped instill pride in the residents of Oswego.

“Through the ORA aspect of things, creating a neighborhood that people want to live in is geared towards attracting new residents and retaining current ones,” Mayor Barlow said.

The intention of the initiative is not only to increase residency, but tourism as well. In attempt to attract more tourists, utilizing Oswego’s river walk more than it is now is extremely important. Mayor Barlow believes it can be a single reason visitors make stops in the downtown.

“How can we take somebody who’s driving from, let’s say Watertown to Rochester, drive through the city of Oswego and say ‘this doesn’t look like a bad town, maybe next weekend when we have some free time we will stop and eat lunch there,’” Mayor Barlow said.

He believes being a millennial mayor with fresh ideas and a new administration who’s allocating resources to downtown, following up on code enforcement in step, and standing out against landlords who have blighted properties has been a huge contributing factor.

The mayor describes the DRI, ORA and new government administration as the big three driving forces behind the progression of Oswego.

Rudgick explained that in cooperation with consultant Stantec, the local planning committee is helping provide direction and guidance in preparing the final DRI plan for Oswego. The final plan is scheduled to be completed sometime in February 2017, so it is a “very ambitious timeline commissioned by the State for completion.”

“Mayor Barlow’s leadership has proven that he knows exactly what the citizens want him to do,” Gardner said. “I think he would agree that nothing is ever set in stone, if it’s a great idea it will be presented and we will do what we can to make sure it comes to light to incite a community effort.”

The next public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 3 at 6 p.m. in the McCrobie Building.

“I would encourage college students to attend to provide feedback on the amenities or businesses that may or may not be lacking in Downtown Oswego, and how we can attract more students,” Rudgick said.

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