The only name that used to count in Schenectady was General Electric. Now the new names to reckon with are Roger and Neil. As in: “Not much happened until Roger and Neil got together.” That is what George L. Robertson, president of the Schenectady Economic Development Corporation, said.
And, “Now Roger and Neil have stepped up to the plate, and we're beginning to hit a lot of singles, and that's what we need — a lot of singles, instead of the home run that many of the town fathers were looking for.” That comes from David Oliker, president and chief executive of MVP Health Plan Inc., a 300,000-member health maintenance organization with headquarters here.
Roger is Roger H. Hull, the president of Union College, and Neil is Neil M. Golub, president of Price Chopper supermarkets. The college president and the grocery magnate have emerged as a two-man urban redevelopment team determined to revive this decaying Mohawk River factory town of 65,000.
Schenectady has been struggling since the early 1960's when General Electric began moving 30,000 jobs to other cities and countries. Mr. Hull said that when he came to Schenectady, the business community was interested in getting people to start shopping downtown again, a short-term fix he said did not address underlying economic problems.
Mr. Hull and Mr. Golub have stunned Schenectady with an ambitious plan to build an eight-screen movie theater, a 50,000-square-foot trade show center, a new hotel and a combination bus and train station to greet the high-speed trains that will arrive from New York City. They even got Gov. George E. Pataki to promise $22 million for the construction of a new state office building downtown for the Department of Transportation, which will bring an estimated 5,500 new jobs to the city.
The two men are unalike in many ways. Mr. Golub, 61, is a blunt businessman and a prominent Republican in upstate New York. Mr. Hull, 56, is a liberal on many social issues and his sentences often lapse into an academic indirection. Mr. Golub is a golfer and a philanthropist. Mr. Hull is devoted to tae kwon do and running — he once ran up 1,575 steps to the top of the Empire State Building in the annual stair-climbing race. The two began working together from the moment they met in 1991, when Mr. Hull arrived to head Union College.
“Our personalities may be very different,” Mr. Hull said, “but at the same time, we're both optimists, and we believe we can get things done.” Mr. Golub agreed. “Roger always has ideas,” he said. “He's always able to lay out the options and ask, 'Where are we going and where do we want to be in 20 years?' Roger is in a business where you've got to make things happen, and I'm in a business where you've got to make things happen.” Mr. Golub's father, William, had also been concerned with the city's future, and left his son $1 million to use for the betterment of the city. With the money, Mr. Golub and Mr. Hull formed Schenectady 2000, a civic organization to foster improvement programs, in 1992.
They hired an urban planner to conduct a survey of the city's best features — the riverfront, the old Stockade brownstone district, the college, the Proctor's Theater — and devise a way to revitalize those features. Next they looked for financial and political investment that would help the city shine again.
Governor Pataki helped their cause by creating a new Metroplex Development Authority, which will receive $50 million in bonds to spend in the city and the county. The bonds are to be paid off by raising the county sales tax .05 percent, making the total tax 7.5 percent. That the revival of downtown has been spearheaded by a college president and a supermarket president stands in sharp contrast to the way things used to work around here.
“This was a company town — G.E. ran the town,” said Mr. Robertson, the head of the economic development corporation. “Even in the 1970's, every not-for-profit board had a G.E. executive on it, and before anything was decided, everybody turned their eyes down to the end of the table to see what G.E. wanted to do.”
Now General Electric is mostly gone and Schenectady has the hollowed-out feeling that characterizes several other old industrial centers here in the Mohawk Valley. And any thought of trying to arrest the decline was stalled by the vain hope that General Electric would bring jobs back, Mr. Robertson said.
“The county government sat there for 20 years while this city went downhill and they didn't do a thing,” Mr. Golub said. “There was no plan, there was nothing.” The County Manager, Robert McEvoy, declined to be interviewed and the chairman of the County Legislature, Francis H. Potter, did not return three phone calls to his office requesting an interview.
“County government views itself as being a higher level of government, and they feel they should be the ones calling the shots,” said Albert P. Jurczynski, the mayor of Schenectady. “Considering what has been happening to the city of Schenectady, and how little anyone was doing about it until Roger and Neil came along, I disagree. I think we should all be marching to the steps of Roger and Neil.”
How far Schenectady has to march is apparent in how far it has fallen. After World War II and into the 1950's, General Electric had 35,000 employees in the city and county — one of every two working people. Today, General Electric's downtown turbine works employs about 6,000, and another round of departures, this time for Atlanta, was announced last spring. Behind the employment vacuum, Schenectady's urban woes come flooding in. “We had the second highest violent crime rate in 1996 in the state of New York,” said Robert T. Farley, a member of the County Legislature and one of Mr. Hull's and Mr. Golub's supporters. “Our county budget is $185 million, and if you include nursing homes, social spending takes $150 million of it, and 80 percent of that goes to the city.” Despite areas of affluence in nearby suburban towns like Scotia and Niskayuna, property values in Schenectady County have declined 35 percent in the last five years, Mr. Farley said.
Mr. Hull recognizes that helping Schenectady also helps Union College. “Clearly, it is in the college's interest to have the city revitalized,” he said, “But the fact is that we have seven applicants for every slot, and although 60 percent of the students who turn us down turn us down because of the city, we could still survive very well the way things are.”
Mr. Hull and Mr. Golub acknowledge that Schenectady has a long way to go before it even approaches its past prosperity. The stock market's recent ups and downs have made the kind of private investment needed to go with the public money harder to raise. And they worry that suburban members of the Metroplex board might have different ideas about ways to spend the $50 million in bonds.
But Mr. Golub said he believed a majority of the board would vote for his and Mr. Hull's vision of the city, and that he was no longer going to worry about opponents. “We are going to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” he said.Read More