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April 3, 2013

Mayor: Blodgett project would boost area economy

By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star

---- — The proposed student apartment complex on Blodgett Drive would be a boon to Oneonta, Mayor Dick Miller said Tuesday in a memorandum to the Common Council that also addressed economic, housing and other goals for the city.

Newman Development Group of Vestal proposes building a four-story, 325-bed apartment complex. The private development would be near the campus of the State University College at Oneonta, which is unaffiliated with the project.

However, as the developer has been filing applications with local officials for site plan approval and for tax abatements, concerns about the project’s impact and opposition to the developer’s plans have grown in recent weeks with the formation of Save Our Oneonta Neighborhoods, or Save Oneonta.

The Common Council will be asked by the Otsego County Industrial Development Agency for an advisory opinion about Newman Development’s application for a tax abatement plan, and Miller in the memo asked council members to discuss the project during scheduled meetings next week of Community Improvement, Facilities and Finance committees.

Miller said his memo provides some of many factors to consider in preparing a response about a payment-in-lieu-of taxes, or PILOT, agreement, and puts council members on alert that an opinion may be needed as soon as April 16, the next meeting of the full council.

“I can see no basis for not supporting the project,’’ Miller concluded in his five-page memo. “It would be irresponsible not to support it.’’

Larry Malone, Second Ward council representative and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he awaits details from the developer and has yet to review the memo from Miller.

“He hadn’t made any kind of public declaration,’’ Malone said.

However, endorsement or opposition stated by the mayor or council members regarding the project doesn’t carry significant weight because the site is zoned for such development, he said. If Newman Development weren’t proposing the apartment complex, another party — such as SUNY Oneonta or a developer from Dubai — could propose to build, said Malone, an economics professor at Hartwick College.

The proposed student apartment is in the Second Ward.

“My job is to make sure the residents up here are protected to the fullest extent I can protect them,’’ Malone said Tuesday night. Issues on the table include water runoff, water pressure, traffic and public safety concerns, he said.

In the memorandum, Miller reviewed background of visits by Newman Development officials; factors about sites considered; the status of SUNY Oneonta and city housing issues; and the study by the city Planning Commission that is lead agency for the State Environmental Quality Review as part of a site plan review. The commission will have a meeting April 10 and a public hearing April 17 on the project.

Miller, a former president of private Hartwick College in Oneonta, during his tenure as mayor has sought ways to revitalize Oneonta’s economy, a goal he reiterated in his memo.

“There has been no private project of this size in Oneonta in the last 25 years,’’ Miller said. The properties of the proposed project site yield less than $11,000 in taxes, Miller said, and added tax revenue from the project ultimately will reduce taxes paid by the rest of the city’s property owners.

The project will have a positive impact on SUNY Oneonta’s ability to recruit and retain higher-quality students, Miller said. Any negative impact on the local rental market he said he expected would be minimal and short-term.

Also, Miller said, Newman Development has agreed to pay for a significant portion of infrastructure improvements, most of which will benefit nearby private property owners, Miller said.

“The local economy can be characterized as stagnant and in slow decline. That is evidenced by declining and aging population, anemic sales tax growth, lower school enrollment, a property tax base that hasn’t increased in five years and reduced support of many community not-for-profits,’’ Miller wrote. “We are blessed by two colleges, but are overly dependent on them, and must, in my judgment, grow private sector economic activity.’’

“We should do everything we can to see that the city benefits by the increased traffic driving from the expansion of Southside retail,’’ he said. “Because it is unlikely that we can attract businesses to relocate here, we must do what we can to support the growth of such manufacturing businesses as Ioxus, Custom Electronics, Brooks and Astrocom.’’ 

Miller also praised Newman Development as a “premier, highly experienced firm’’ that has followed Oneonta city processes and procedures.

Jeffrey Smetana, vice president of student housing development for Newman Development Group, welcomed the mayor’s support.

“From the very beginning, we saw this as a project that has a positive impact for the city and the college,’’ Smetana said.

SUNY Oneonta, which enrolls about 6,000 students, has remained neutral on the prospect and impact of the Newman Development proposal.

Smetana said public criticism of the project by neighbors, landlords and businesses isn’t fairly representing Newman Development’s plans. Through the application process, he said, the development group hopes to address concerns and ease objections.

For example, residents living near the proposed site have had issues with water runoff previously, Smetana said, but Newman Development’s engineers have conducted researched and prepared plans that won’t make the situation worse.

Regarding objections from the Oneonta business district, Smetana said. Newman Development has a good reputation among Binghamton businesses, he said, and will reach out with promotions and marketing projects to engage Oneonta retailers and student residents.

Hillside Commons will generate more tax revenue than currently is collected from the parcels involved, Smetana said. The project and complex will hire local residents, spend money locally, meet a demand for amenitized student housing and create connections with the business community, he said.

“This type of project in one way, shape or form will happen,’’ Smetana said. “Newman Development Group is an ideal firm to come into Oneonta and take on a project like this.’’