Discussions with elected officials and economic development experts reveal that the issue is more complex than simple division of grant money among the city’s Uptown, Midtown and Rondout neighborhoods. It involves a tangle of bureaucracy, varying priorities and funding formulas among the federal, state and local agencies responsible for funding capital projects at a time when Kingston is increasingly unable to pay for them on its own.
The latest round in the debate kicked off earlier this month after Mayor James Sottile sent a letter to the Common Council urging lawmakers to approve the diversion of $50,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds from the ongoing restoration of the Carnegie Library adjacent to Kingston High School to the construction of a bandstand in T.R. Gallo Park on the waterfront. Supporters of the change said that the bandstand would help boost business and sales tax revenue generated by downtown merchants, while rental fees for the bandstand could provide another source of money for the city. But Alderwoman Shirley Whitlock (D-Ward 4), who represents much of Midtown, objected on the grounds that the Rondout had received millions of dollars in grant funds in recent years while the CDBG money was intended to benefit Kingston’s poorest neighborhoods. The council eventually voted to table the issue and take it up at a later date.
“I don’t have an issue with other parts of the city getting what’s due to them,” said Whitlock. “What I have a problem with is taking money that’s supposed to be for Midtown and distributing it somewhere else. I don’t think Midtown is getting the money that it should.”
Money flows to the waterfront
In defending his push for the bandstand, Sottile noted that programs and capital projects on the Kingston waterfront had received just $485,000 in CDBG funds over the past seven years, a figure which includes $166,000 for a sewer upgrade project. In the same period, Midtown received $2.85 million through the program.
But the federal entitlement program is hardly the whole, or even a significant, part of the story of the Rondout’s ongoing transformation from a post-industrial dead zone lined with oil tanks and scrap yards into a regional tourist destination. Steve Finkle, Kingston’s director of economic development, estimates that waterfront improvement projects have garnered between $2.5 and $3 million in state and federal funding in the past eight years. The money, in the form of member items from U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey and awards through the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, have paid for a new walkway along the creek, the creation of a median strip on the strand, façade improvements at the city’s sewage treatment plant and a feasibility study for a trolley which runs through the neighborhood.
According to Finkle, the high tide of grant money in downtown Kingston is the result of state agencies which administer capital improvement grants placing waterfront reclamation projects high on their list of priorities. Finkle added that the focus on waterfront revitalization reflected the emphasis on building up tourism in river cities like Kingston, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, where the departure of industry in the latter half of the 20th century left a hole in the local tax base.
“The waterfront was the one area where we could revitalize it and create tax base and jobs,” said Finkle. “And the [state] Department of State and other agencies can come in on waterfront related projects with a funding source that they can’t use in other parts of the city.”
The neighborhood has also benefited from the Local Waterfront Redevelopment Plan, a document which lays out principles and goals for revitalizing the area. Alderman Bob Senor (D-Ward 8), who represents the Rondout, said that combination of a comprehensive plan and state officials’ focus on waterfront projects meant that the neighborhood fared well in obtaining competitive grants, which rely on scoring system to determine which projects are worthy of state or federal aid.
“There’s a lot of things down here that help us out with those scores,” said Senor. “We’ve applied for other grants and been turned down, but all of our waterfront redevelopment money seems to get approved.”
Lower-key projects in Midtown
In Midtown, the bulk of the grant money for capital projects and community programs comes through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program. The funds are targeted to benefit residents of the city’s poorest census tracts which are located in Midtown and, to a lesser extent, downtown Kingston. In 2003, Kingston was designated an “entitlement community,” meaning that the funds, which typically amount to a little under $1 million per year, are awarded automatically. (Prior to the designation, Kingston had to compete with other cities for CDBG money.)
The funding package comes with strict criteria including separate pools of money for infrastructure improvement and programs. Each year, the council must approve an action plan laying out how the money will be used and how it will benefit poorer census tracts. The majority of the $2.85 million in CDBG money spent in Midtown since 2003 has gone to rebuild the neighborhood’s aging sewer system and repair sidewalks. The funds have also paid for youth programs at the Everette Hodge Center and the Boys and Girls Club, housing rehabilitation and law enforcement programs, including security cameras and funding for the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team.
But lawmakers who represent Midtown say that one need only walk through the neighborhood to see that the area has received less attention than more well-to-do parts of Kingston.
“I ask you, what do you see different in Midtown this year from last year?” said Whitlock. “The way I see it, they just keep patching up Midtown instead of tearing it up and fixing it right.”
Whitlock said that the waterfront revitalization projects benefit downtown merchants, tourists and city residents with the money to spend in the neighborhood’s restaurants and bars but offer nothing to Midtown youth who, she said, need places to go besides the street corners.
“People say we have to support businesses down there, but the vacationers have a choice about where they want to go,” said Whitlock. “But we also have a responsibility to the people who live here 12 months a year.”
Alderwoman Jen Fuentes (WFP-Ward 5), whose ward includes parts of Midtown, said that she believed the neighborhood had been neglected over the years. But, she added, it would take community leadership and better planning to address the problem.
“There has not been a lot of visionary leadership coming out of Midtown to say what kind of development they want,” said Fuentes. “Is the claim that Midtown has been left in the dust true? Yes. But there’s responsibility on a lot of people’s part to change that.”
Fuentes said she was encouraged by the recent design charrette for the site of the former King’s Inn which involved 10 architects coming together with business and community leaders to envision new uses for the shuttered welfare hotel. Fuentes said that similar initiatives, along with a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood, could help change the area’s reputation as a place to pass through en-route to more attractive areas of Kingston.
“I think that public and private investment could really have a huge impact on Midtown but we need to prioritize and identify areas of need,” said Fuentes.”
Uptown: Highway to bureaucratic hell
Uptown Kingston, home to the city’s wealthiest census tracts, sees little benefit from the CDBG program. Instead, grant programs geared towards historic preservation have traditionally flowed into the neighborhood, which boasts 17th century stone houses and the original home of the New York State Senate. The restoration of the old Kirkland Hotel, using hundreds of thousands of dollars in state historic preservation funds, is the best known recent example of Uptown’s cashing in on the past. But, in recent years another major benefactor has appeared with grant packages that dwarf the preservation funds.
The state Department of Transportation currently has millions of dollars ready to roll on a host of Uptown projects, including the $1.1 million restoration of the Pike Plan Canopy. Millions more are available for the creation of an intermodal transportation center, a plan to remake Washington Avenue as a pedestrian-friendly urban thoroughfare, proposals to ease navigation of the Stockade District’s baffling web of one-way streets and to redesign the intersection of Albany Avenue and Col. Chandler Drive.
The money is available based on Uptown’s concentration of transportation hubs, proximity to the New York State Thruway and the presence of state routes running through the area. And while the money comes from a variety of sources, including federal highway funds secured by Hinchey, all of the projects must be vetted by the state Department of Transportation.
Therein, says Uptown Alderman Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2), lies the answer to the question of why, despite millions of dollars set aside for them, none of the projects has gone much beyond the planning stage.
“The biggest problem we have with that funding is that the system the New York State DOT uses to approve projects is an incredible nightmare of bureaucracy,” said Hoffay. “Not only do you have to address all of the environmental concerns, but you have this review process that is just born in hell.”
That process has slowed efforts to get one of the most high-profile projects, the redesign and refurbishment of the Pike Plan Canopy underway. The project was first proposed back in 2005. Hinchey secured federal highway funds to cover the majority of the costs in 2008. In April 2009, project consultants expressed confidence that work could begin that summer. Now, more than a year later, city officials are still waiting for DOT staff to sign off on the plan. Meanwhile, the intermodal center, which was conceived back in 2005 and intended to provide a link for various forms of transportation like buses and cars, has been subject to multiple rounds of review and public comment as the agency works with city and county officials to find a suitable location for the hub. Among the sites that project consultants were directed to evaluate was the corner of Schwenk Drive and Washington Avenue, despite the fact that the parcel had already been sold and development of a CVS pharmacy was well under way at the site.
“Working with DOT is incredibly difficult unless it’s a project that they have conceived,” said Hoffay. “If it’s a project that you bring to them, you are guaranteed to come out of that process with no skin left on your body.”
Hoffay said that strong local leadership, and backing from elected officials like Hinchey was essential to getting grant money and holding onto it long enough to see a project through to completion.
“If the local leadership is not stepping up, you can forget about it,” said Hoffay. “Having a congressman like Hinchey on your side is crucial.”
Despite the grueling DOT approval process, Hoffay said that the vast sums available for transportation projects made the pain worthwhile.
“You’re not going to redo a whole section of the city with historic grants,” said Hoffay. “There’s all kinds of different funding sources out there available for different kinds of projects. What you need to do is have a plan, figure out what you want to do and then go out and find the right funding mechanism to get it done.”