Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Auburn less than two weeks ago to announce the city was the latest winner of a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, which will fund a variety of projects aimed at continuing Auburn's downtown renaissance. But now that the dust has settled from the announcement, many Auburnians may be left wondering, "What now?"
The city submitted its winning application for the DRI — a program started in 2016 that divides $100 million a year among 10 municipalities across the state to revitalize downtown corridors — to the state on June 1. Auburn's application played on the city's historic roots with the theme "This place matters" and highlighted several projects vying for state funding, including $1.5 million for improving the East Hill Family Medical Center, $1.2 million for a public safety facility, $1.1 million for an arts campus on the city's west end and $300,000 to expand Auburn Public Theater.
However, just because those projects helped push Auburn's application to the top, doesn't mean they will receive funding. In the end, the state gets the final say on which projects get DRI support, and Auburn has a lot of work to do before shovels are in the ground.
According to a timeline provided by the state Department of State, Auburn's next step is to establish a "DRI team" with a planner chosen by the state, consultants and a local committee made up of local and regional leaders, stakeholders and community representatives. According to a DOS spokesperson, each municipality's consultant is "procured competitively and in accordance with state law from a prequalified list through Empire State Development." Each municipality pays $300,000 from its $10 million award to the consultant, leaving $9.7 million to fund projects.
Then, that group will work to develop a strategic plan that will serve as a guide as the city fleshes out a revised list of projects to send to the state for final approval. But before that, the city must host at least three public meetings to gather input from the community on which projects they would most like to see funded.
The city of Oswego was awarded the DRI for the Regional Economic Development Council Central New York region in July 2016. Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said the city didn't start working with its consultant until September and then in February 2017, submitted its new plan to the state. Then, about a year after Oswego was first notified of its award, the state announced which projects would ultimately receive funding. Work began this summer on some projects in Oswego, but others are not yet ready to break ground.
In Cortland, CNY's 2017 winner, the final projects were announced in July of this year, though the city was not notified it received its DRI award until October 2017. Mayor Brian Tobin said he is hopeful some of the DRI projects can get started this year and said the whole process has been a "whirlwind."
According to a DOS spokesperson, Auburn will be required to submit its DRI plan to the state in March 2019. The final projects will be announced sometime in the summer of 2019.
Past winning communities have said the public participation process is crucial to developing the final plan. In Oswego, Cortland and Geneva, public input drove several projects that city officials wouldn't have thought to include in the plan — and those were ultimately chosen by the state to be funded.
Barlow said in Oswego, the public really got behind a project to build an indoor water park near the city's downtown waterfront and a plan to tear down an aging plaza and replace it with mixed-use structure with commercial storefronts and apartment units.
"After seeing the amount of support those projects had, we made sure they got in the plan," Barlow said.
Those two projects received $500,000 and $2 million awards, respectively, and were among the 12 funded.
In Geneva, a private developer said support for his company's project not only led to it receiving $1.25 million in DRI funding, but input from the community also helped the project take a new shape.
President and CEO of Solar Homes Factory Ryan Wallace broke ground in June on a project to create a solar village on Geneva's waterfront. The village will consist of 24 modular condos that will be powered completely by the sun. The homes will be constructed at the Solar Homes Factory in Geneva and then installed on site.
When the project was first proposed, the condos were supposed to be apartments and vacation rentals, but Wallace said the public wanted more permanent housing, something that would add to the tax rolls and be an option for people to stay in Geneva long-term.
"Public opinion really drove us to move to owner-occupied condos," Wallace said. "Luckily, the DRI process allows for that accommodation, as long as you're still achieving your original goals. We wouldn't have been able to make that change, even though the public drove that change, had we not continued to be open with the public."
Wallace said the company used social media and produced a video explaining the project to make sure the public was aware of what the company wanted to achieve.
Some projects, even those included in a municipality's winning application, may not make the final cut.
The Oswego County Industrial Development Agency wanted to transform a vacant grocery store into a business incubator, a place where new businesses owners can rent office space and get assistance starting or growing their business. The city included that project in its final DRI plan and requested $1.5 million in funding, but was it was not picked by the state.
"Ten million dollars only goes so far," IDA CEO Michael Treadwell said. "In Oswego, there were so many downtown potential mix-use projects that came to forefront, I think the decision was made for what was more critical, which was redeveloping the downtown area with new housing, apartments primarily, and revitalizing the waterfront."
Treadwell said he was a little upset the IDA's project did not get funding, but said the work the IDA put into the building to get it ready for the DRI, such as environmental studies and structural analyses, helped Oswego Health take advantage of a separate state grant to build a behavioral health center at the former grocery store.
"Our project as we proposed did not materialize; however, another one did and if we hadn't done what we had done, it might not have happened," Treadwell said. "It worked out well."
Cortland's final DRI plan included 26 projects requesting over $12 million in funding. The state picked 13 of those projects to share the $9.7 million. Tobin stressed that public input was the "strongest piece" in terms of determining the final projects.
"Community engagement is really important to this, something the state really wants to see," Cortland's mayor said. "These decisions are being made at a local level, so it's really an outstanding way for the state to support local development by allowing local people to make these decisions."