Oswego City Skyline

The city of Oswego skyline has been enriched with projects completed through the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative program funding. 

OSWEGO — It’s no secret that the Downtown Revitalization Initiative has transformed communities all across the state, but after years of construction and almost all projects wrapping up, has the city of Oswego kept its promise to transform the community?

In the first year of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), the state awarded a $10 million grant to the Port City with the promise of reimagining the community’s downtown. 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.”

Entering the sixth year since the award, city leaders and local developers have lauded the city’s growth and are enjoying or looking forward to the 12 projects opening.

Of the dozen projects announced in July 2017, only one remains in development (the Lake Ontario Water Park). Two are finishing up (the East Lake Commons and Harbor View Square), while others are completed (Riverwalk Apartments, the Cahill Building, Market Street Pocket Park, the LITATRO Building, the West First Street and state Route 104 crosswalk, West First to West Third streets safety improvements, restoring the Buckhout-Jones Building façade, and renovating the Children’s Museum of Oswego).

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow, who took office in 2016, said when the DRI was announced that it was a golden opportunity for the Port City.

“When the DRI was announced in January of 2016, I got immediately with the Economic Development team at the time and said ‘this is our chance,’” Barlow said earlier this month. “I’d like to think that when we took office in 2016, we would accomplish as much as we had.”

When the city applied for the first DRI against 122 other applicants, the application was done deliberately and focused on addressing four core areas: strengthening the vibrancy of the city’s downtown, connecting downtown to the waterfront, increasing downtown residential living, and retaining and growing businesses and jobs, Barlow said.

Now, more than five years later, the city has hit nearly every point, he said.

“I don’t know when the last time the city saw so much construction and development than we saw in the last two or three summers,” Barlow said.

He said the downtown’s renaissance in recent years was made possible through a variety of investments, one of the largest being the state DRI, compounding the city’s efforts in the community.

“I think city residents were pleased to see landlords finally being held accountable and seeing the condition of our neighborhoods improving, developments and improvements along our waterfront, and the addition of new parks and more community events. These are all things that get people excited and make it fun to live here,” he said.

Barlow pointed to façade restorations, $600,000 in funding made available through the “Downtown Improvement Fund” (DIF) and multiple mix-use buildings as reasons for the city’s changing atmosphere.

Oswego Common Council President Robert Corradino, R-7th Ward, said that before the DRI, the city could be seen in a downturn. But through the DIF, many buildings and aging facades were addressed.

“The improvements and benefits have been spread over many entities,” he said. “It goes hand in hand. Everyone has benefited from the top to the bottom.”

Connecting the city’s alluring waterfront to the historic downtown is something local leaders have been imagining for many years, and through the DRI — and other state grants — the two previously unconnected parts are now whole. 

Barlow compared the DRI’s transformative efforts to that of the state’s $300 million Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, better known as REDI, which dramatically bolstered the city’s shoreline community in light of flooding damage felt in 2017 and 2019.

“Our DRI plan and our waterfront plan with the REDI program and our improvements to Breitbeck has certainly connected the waterfront to downtown better than before,” Barlow said.

The two separate grants, as Barlow said, helped foster a psychological shift in residents and the city.

“Once you sense that energy and see that development, growth, people wanting to live here and above all you have Oswego residents talking in a positive manner about their own community, that is very contagious and has a lot to do with this psychological shift for the first time in decades,” he said.

The DRI also brought new buildings such as the Harbor View Square, East Lake Commons, Riverwalk Apartments and the LITATRO Building. Those helped bring people to the city, and officials hope those people stay in Oswego.

“When I came back from college I had friends I went to high school with that were in their early twenties and of course a lot of them moved away, but even the young adults working here at Novelis, Exelon, Oswego Health, and SUNY Oswego were working here but still living in Onondaga County, which was very frustrating to me,” Barlow said.

Local developers lauded the city’s growth in recent years and provided updates on the upcoming facilities.

“Without the DRI, I know that Harbor View Square would not have come to fruition,” said Ben Lockwood, CEO of Housing Visions, the nonprofit responsible for the Harbor View Square. “The city of Oswego really was a leader in identifying projects that could use the DRI funding boost and continually working with partners to see these ideas come to fruition.”

According to Lockwood, the Harbor View Square will open in the coming weeks as developers finalize “procedural steps” with the state prior to opening.

Meanwhile, East Lake Commons is also opening soon, according to Megan Houppert, the vice president of development at Home Leasing, owner of East Lake Commons. Houppert said contractors are completing the final touches. 

“The project is a great example of public and private partnership. With the help of the city and the state, the project took a blighted brownfield and transformed it into a beautiful mixed income building,” she said. “We’re very proud of the success and grateful to the city of Oswego for being such great partners.”

Ed Alberts, owner of Riverwalk Apartments, echoed his fellow developers and said the city has been a “great example of how to maximize DRI funding to promote change in a city,” despite challenges.

“It is tough to measure the total impact of the DRI because of the timing of the pandemic. I do think that the city is poised for great growth over the next few years,” he said.

The final aspect of the DRI — job creation — is the sole part of the plan Barlow said the city could still look to improve upon in the coming years.

“Job creation is the one area we still need to keep pushing,” he said. He noted that because of Oswego’s “unique issue” — employees working here but living in other counties — the city in the future might work with local organizations to attract employers through incentives and additional benefits.

Through all these developments and investments in creating housing, Barlow said the city leveraged roughly a little more than $100 million in private investment from the initial $10 million.

“The more residents you have downtown, the more opportunities business owners have to capture customers,” he said. “That’s where the events play a key role. You have a few thousand people going into downtown and that is an opportunity for businesses.”

Getting to this point didn’t come without its challenges, however. Issues the mayor pointed to included people’s negative feelings toward the projects, difficulty while bringing some projects to fruition, flooding damage suffered in 2017 and 2019, and others.

Despite these, Barlow said he was impressed with how much the city has grown and thanked his team and community members that helped make this possible.

“It has taken a lot of hard work, and I have great partners in Pathfinder and some of the developers who did these projects,” Barlow said. “It’s very much been a team effort and I am proud of what we have done, but we are not done and we still have issues we need to work on. We are not done, and I try not to rest on what we did yesterday. I always try to look ahead.”