Anyone who’s paying attention around here has come to a double conclusion:
►One, pretty much every employer, big or small, has vacancies that can’t be filled.
►Two, if new employees are hired, they often can’t find a convenient, affordable place to live.
No workers. No worker housing. A double bind.
If misery loves company, then economic developer Jody Zakrevsky, CEO of Otsego Now, went to a jobs forum hosted by Congressman Antonio Delgado, D-19, last week at SUNY Cobleskill, and came back with good news: All 11 counties in the 19th Congressional District are in the same boat.
“Columbia County is facing similar challenges,” said F. Michael Tucker, president/CEO of that county’s Economic Development Corp., whom Zakrevsky said had the most to tell Delgado about the challenge. In a way, it’s even moreso.
Tucker said his county’s had the lowest unemployment in the state for 22 months in a row.
Plus the biggest city, Hudson, has become a magnet for New York City folks looking for a weekend getaway. There are 4,500 second homes in that county, and the resulting gentrification is pushing home prices higher than around here.
There’s more good news, though, Tucker said: The state’s Division of Housing & Community Renewal is aware of the conundrum, and has $150 million in grants available to communities that recognize the problem.
Even more good news: Otsego County’s two largest communities, the City of Oneonta and Village of Cooperstown, have happened onto the route to the solution.
In Oneonta in particular, then-Mayor Dick Miller realized there was a hole in the Bresee’s Department Store renovation: The cost was so expensive, rents to allow a developer to make a profit would be more than most people could afford.
City Hall obtained state and federal grants and closed the gap. The resulting four-story apartment complex has been full and profitable for seven years now, and developer Chip Klugo completed the renovation of the building next door, former Stevens Hardware Store, last November. Mayor Gary Herzig, Miller’s successor, gets it, too, and is using grants to make the Lofts On Dietz, Kearney & Son’s 64 apartments and artists’ lofts, doable as well.
In Cooperstown, Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch’s plate is full. The village will complete the $2.2 million last leg of a multi-year downtown upgrade this spring, and the $5.7 million Doubleday Field redo later in the year.
However, she’s looking beyond that to adopting the Oneonta model. Village Hall obtained a $1 million CDBG (community development block grant) through the Division of Housing & Community Renewal for the Cooperstown Distillery Expansion, which may be complete as soon as March (with a ribbon-cutting in May).
Once the village proves to the state it can administer CDBGs, Tillapaugh foresees applying for grants and partnering with developers on housing projects as well.
According to Tucker, you just can’t wait to be discovered: Communities need to determine what kind of projects are desirable, then seek out developers who have done similar projects elsewhere, as Miller did with Klugo, and Herzig with the Kearneys’ Lofts.
Almost inevitably, there will be some community opposition, as with the Lofts, and neighbors’ lawsuits, as with the Lofts. Resolve them if you can and move forward.
On hearing about the current conundrum – jobs you can’t fill and, if you can, no housing for the new employees – you might be tempted to get discouraged. No reason to, said Tucker:
A recent Columbia County middle-income apartment complex was finished and immediately filled.
It can happen here, too. Don’t look too far down the road. Do a project at a time: Bresee’s, Stevens, The Lofts, Springbrook’s housing in the Ford Block, above Key Bank, and then – be still beating hearts – the old (but marble-stepped) former Oneonta Hotel.
Cooperstown has done similarly with its downtown upgrades, one project after another – the rain gardens, the Pioneer Street sewerage, the sidewalks, the streetlights – eventually it gets done. Next, appropriately sited apartments.
Tucker pointed to what’s a three-legged stool: Jobs, housing – and job training, and there’s money for that, too, although much is already happening at our local ONC BOCES.
Today’s good-news screaming headline is, THERE’S PLENTY OF WORK. Check this week’s JOBS supplement, inside this edition. Once new paychecks are being cashed, things start to happen.