Andrew Cuomo's Downtown Revitalization Initiative was supposed to supposed to fund 'transformative' improvements — three years later, have Oswego's big dreams panned out?
OSWEGO — The Port City’s dozen downtown revitalization projects are more than one-third complete with seven of the eight remaining developments underway slightly more than two years since being selected for state support.
During the first year of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), $10 million was bestowed upon the city with the promise of transforming a long stagnant downtown and rejuvenating the local economy. Cuomo, who visited Oswego in July 2016 to announce the DRI award, said at the time that Oswego had been down “a very hard road” but the $10 million grant marked “a different day.”
“I truly believe the best is yet to be,” Cuomo said to a crowd gathered at the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center in 2016. “We are not building back what Oswego was. We are going to build an Oswego that has never been, and we are on the track to do it.”
More than three years out, it appears the endeavor is making good on its promise of injecting life into downtown, and officials are confident the end result will be an improved downtown that fosters further development in the Port City.
With the finishing touches being placed on the state Route 104 improvements and the Water Street Square pocket park, those two projects will soon join the Cahill Building and Children’s Museum of Oswego (CMOO) as DRI projects that have reached the finish line. City residents are awaiting the eight other projects, the majority of which are well underway.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow this week said the DRI is “exactly what upstate New York communities, like Oswego, need to jolt into an upswing.” Barlow said smaller municipalities, such as Oswego, no longer have the resources necessary to attract significant business and development, as global competition is greater than ever.
“The DRI equips municipalities with the funding to attract development and leverage investment, and encourages municipalities to develop a realistic vision and strategy to follow,” the mayor said. “Without the DRI, we still would’ve made progress downtown, but nothing like we’ve been able to do by leveraging $10 million with private investment.”
As it stands, Barlow said after a somewhat frustrating 2018 that saw little progress with the exception of the Cahill Building, completed last November, he’s satisfied with the speed in which the projects are now moving forward.
“We are seeing 11 of the 12 projects either completed or quickly being constructed and its encouraging to see them finally happening and happening quickly,” the mayor said. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. People don’t realize the time and energy it takes, and quite frankly, most of the work involved with the grants isn’t writing and winning the grant, it’s administering the grant after you’ve won.”
Projects currently under construction include the so-called “Litatro Building” at the former Global Buffet site, the Lake Ontario Water Park at Quality Inn and Suites and Harbor View Square at the former Flexo-Wire site on West First Street. Developers for each of those projects recently spoke with The Palladium-Times to offer construction updates and anticipated timeframes for completion.
Syracuse-based non-profit Housing Visions is developing the Harbor View Square site, which includes 75 apartments and roughly 9,200 square feet of retail and commercial space. President and CEO Ben Lockwood said the development, located near the corner of West First Street and Lake Street on the former Flexo-Wire site, has been slowed a bit due to inclement weather and high water but is still on target to be completed in about a year.
“We’re obviously moving along and we’re pleased with the progress,” Lockwood said, noting the project is about 90 days behind the initial timeline. “We’re just a little bit behind schedule but we’re pleased otherwise with the project.”
Three of the four buildings included in the Harbor View development are largely framed and sealed, and Lockwood said the first is expected to be competed around March with the others following until the development is finished in August or September 2020.
Lockwood said the company is already compiling a waiting list for the future apartments.
Atom Avery, who is developing the former Global Buffet site into the Litatro Building, said foundation work is moving along fairly quickly, and anticipated the building would be standing and weather tight by early December.
“As far as we’re concerned things are moving in the right direction,” Avery said, noting the construction has largely gone unnoticed so far, but more than 100 cubic yards of concrete have been poured and passersby would soon start to see the frame of the structure going up.
Avery said the plan is to open up the first-floor commercial space, which will include a restaurant, ahead of finishing the apartments on the upper floors. He said the proposed rooftop bar would likely be the last feature of the structure to be completed.
George "Buddy" Broadwell, owner and general contractor for the Lake Ontario Water Park, said the project is scheduled for completion late next year.
“The scheduled time for completion, as we said from day one, is going to be November-December of 2020,” Broadwell said, noting the initial timeline called for roughly a year to construct the building and another year to install the water park. “It’s going to be one great water park. The public is going to love it.”
Since early this year the foundation work has been in progress, and passersby in recent months have seen the steel frame and structure of the building nearing completion.
“We’ll be done with the steel and everything should be up the middle of next week or maybe this week,” Broadwell said, noting the next step would be to install siding. “It’s a step-by-step process.”
Several other projects are in various stages, including further renovations to the Buckout-Jones Building expected this fall, commercial space and apartments on West First Street at the corner of Cayuga Street and the East Lake Commons development at the former Midtown Plaza.
Local businessman Ed Alberts is developing the apartment complex and retail space on West First Street that includes the area formerly occupied by Harbor Optical at the corner of West Cayuga Street. Officials expect the development to be completed in about a year.
"Our Riverwalk apartment and restaurant project at 147-159 West First Street in Oswego is moving,” Alberts said in a statement. “We will soon be in demolition of the existing building. Hoping to break ground on the new construction before fall and open the Riverwalk apartments within one year.”
Syracuse-based Sutton Real Estate Company is developing the East Lake Commons project, which received the largest allocation of DRI funding at $2.2 million. Sutton President Louis Fournier said the company is still committed to the project and construction would likely start by the end of the year.
“We’re close,” Fournier said, noting the company was in the area last week with demolition and structural teams scoping out the site. “We have a couple of financing things we’re trying to iron out and our goal was to still be in the ground sometime toward the fall or the end of the year.”
The six-story, mixed-use development calls for a 72-unit apartment complex and about 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level. Fournier said it’s a large development and the company had significant work to get the project up and running.
“We’re going to get there,” he said. “It just took a little longer than we thought.”
Despite most of the projects not yet reaching completion, Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said “transformation brought forth by the DRI” can already been seen throughout the city, and the work has had a positive impact on the Port City’s downtown.
“The public space projects especially make our downtown more inviting and attractive, encouraging people to come and spend more time in our downtown area,” the mayor said.
Barlow said the construction of the remaining projects has generated activity downtown and “you can already see how the projects, once completed, will fill in our downtown, bringing more people into downtown and only add to the positive energy we see and feel.”
It’s Barlow’s belief the city is already experiencing increased economic spinoff as a result of the DRI projects, which he said coupled with small grants the city awarded to the YMCA, Good Guys Barbershop and Stone’s Candy to increase interest and confidence in the downtown area and causing more people to invest in and improve the area, along with.
“I strongly believe new attractions like CMOO, Water Street Square and the new restaurant going into the Litatro Building will get more people downtown and will produce returning visitors to downtown,” Barlow said.
The city’s Downtown Improvement Fund (DIF), another DRI project aimed at making grants available to local businesses, was delayed by a state requirement to completed an environmental assessment and other steps for each project, Barlow said, but the city’s economic development staff have worked through the process and officials are currently awaiting final approvals for the projects. Barlow said the city expects state approval within the next month.
Barlow said administering the DRI grant, which involves private developers and large scale projects with sizeable funding allocations, has kept city officials busy keeping developers interested and engaged while ensuring state officials are content with the progress.
“It has been a lot of work and it has taken a lot of time, but the results are going to be worth it,” Barlow said this week. “We are ahead of most other 2016 DRI winners in implementation and I am proud of that. As always, I appreciate the continued support we’ve had from Gov. Cuomo and our state legislators, and appreciate their support and confidence in Oswego.”