Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Utica-The Right Direction

What direction should Utica be headed in? The answer depends on who you are and how the current conditions that exist affect your daily life. Direction is subjective-we need to all agree on where to steer ourselves before we can arrive at where we want to be!

In a recent magazine article, San Francisco based designer Ken Faulk talked about his home in that magnificent west coast city and compared it to his second home in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. "I don't know that I can define it exactly," he began, referring to P-Town. " I love it's history and it's rich heritage as one of America's oldest arts colonies."

He went on. "in a weird way, it's like San Francisco. Both are slightly ramshackle places surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Both are rogue-like places where an odd assortment of people manage to live together harmoniously. It could all go terribly wrong, but it doesn't."

Wow. Could that description not apply to Utica?  For years, I have marveled at  the breathtaking scenery of the Mohawk Valley that envelops Utica in a lush tapestry of green. The rolling hills, meandering Mohawk River, the historic Erie Canal, all contribute to the natural beauty that we sometimes don't take the time to notice and appreciate.

And, who can deny the ramshackle quality of Utica? In a way, it's what gives us the charm and uniqueness that communities like San Fran and P-town celebrate and use to their advantage. Nobody remembers Stuccoed strip malls and one Applebee's from another. Everyone remembers what we have-charming, slightly run down but none the less wonderful architecture and places in Utica.

And, dare I say, a place that celebrates and bestows celebrity status on "Rainbow," the corner guitar playing street performer, is a place that can boast an odd assortment of people! In a way, it's our best quality. It's what enables us to accept different people, cultures and lifestyles, and not only embrace them, but make them feel at home. Everyone who comes here almost immediately feels invested in the place. It quickly becomes their home, too.

As Mr. Faulk so eloquently stated, it could all go terribly wrong here in Utica, too. But, for some reason, it doesn't.

So, how does a city like Utica use it's strengths to turn itself around? Building on it's history, heritage, natural resources and great citizenry is a start. I will examine in future articles my vision for what Utica needs to do to become successful. Using the example of communities that get it, I will be able to eventually arrive at a plan of how to jumpstart future success.

It won't be easy. Nothing worth fighting for ever is. And, it won't come politically. It has to be grass roots. Elected officials have proven time and time again in our town that they just don't get it.

Well, there a lot of folks who do get it. Hopefully, some of them will make suggestions that can be included in my examination of the journey that we need to take-together-to save our hometown.

At the Tram, the wonderful coffee house on Lincoln Ave, owners Robin and Garret have an old book on the shelf. It's called, "What Utica Needs." Written in the 1960's, it examines the city in the context of what the conditions were then and what needed to be done to correct the mistakes that had been made.

It's a great read. Unfortunately, very few, if any, of the authors suggestions were listened to or acted on. The "power elite" at the time were as disconnected from reality as today's crop of politicos are.

It's time to turn it around. And, unlike the '60's, we have the power of the internet and social media to get our message out! What Utica needs is......a new direction!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Utica-Are We Headed In The Right Direction?

There has been talk for years about where Utica is headed, what it wants to be. Are we any closer to achieving that vision today?

Rob Palmieri has been Mayor of Utica for six months. In that time, the city has been waiting for something to happen. Waiting for a direction, a message, an initiative. Something. Anything.

When the Roefaro administration imploded in 2011, it unwittingly laid the foundation for the eventual election of Palmieri. For some mysterious reason, Roefaro fired Palmieri and then dropped out of the race. Palmieri took advantage of this opportunity, ran for the seat, and was actually elected to replace the man who fired him!

The question is this: was Palmieri ready to become mayor? Did he have the chops necessary to take control of a city with the depth and complexity of issues that confront Utica?

After six months in office, I think we have our answer.

Economic Development

Utica has been in crisis since the downtown retail and business exodus that began in the 1950's. The cheap and abundant suburban land that developers took advantage of signaled the death knell of Utica's reign as the retail hub. First, came the New Hartford Shopping Center, then Riverside Mall. Finally, the Seneca wetlands were drained for Sangertown Square. Throughout those critical years, none of the Mayors of Utica or the people who worked for them were able to articulate a plan to counteract this disinvestment with a vision for downtown. So, we demolished buildings in the hope that developers would see that we too had land to develop.

It didn't work.

We were left with a battle scared landscape that made the city seem even more abandoned, even more hopeless. Architectural treasures that gave us our distinctive identity were destroyed in the hopes that someone would come in, develop the empty land and restore prosperty. Developers did not want anything to do with Utica. Oneida County Planning gave its stamp of approval to any and all sprawl development in the former farmlands and orchards that surround Utica, so there was no reason to look at the city anymore as a place to invest.

Is it all that different today? City Hall is silent about the future of downtown. The Masterplan sits on a shelf gathering dust, the street lights throughout downtown are in various states of disrepair, the vacancy rate of storefronts is silent testimony to a city that no one is willing to invest in. If there is a plan to help stimulate downtown and promote growth, no one knows what it is. Even the 5.2 million dollar parking garage money is shrouded in secrecy. How will it be spent? And where? More importantly, who will benefit? Secrecy. Lack of transparency. That seems to be the hallmark of Palmieri's city hall.

Public Safety

Rob Palmieri is dedicated to public safety. And why not? Throughout the years, Utica has built a police and fire department second to none in the state. Mayors of the city can assure its citizens that, no matter what, they will be safe. That translates well during an election campaign.  Palmieri knows this. And, his experience throughout the years working with public safety has, he claims, given him the experience necessary to handle these departments.

Has it? Utica spends almost all of it's resources on public safety. The problem is, we cannot afford it. We have not been able to for many years. Does Palmieri really know what to do to stop the hemorrhaging and streamline public safety into a manageable entity that the city can afford?

If the first six months of this administration is any example of what we can expect for the next three years, it appears that we will be paying for the same level of staffing that we have today. Maybe more.


The Palmieri administration love it's sweeps, a weekly feel good photo-op that shows the citizens that city hall is connected, that it cares. Week after week, we are treated to sweaty department heads trudging through the mean streets of our most marginal neighborhoods, picking up gum wrappers and squinting their most concerned looks for the cameras that follow their every move. Facebook posts hundreds of these photos for all the "Friends" of the administration to follow. The only problem seems to be this: what are the outcomes? Where are the stats that justify this weekly parade of public servants cataloguing the problems that confront our city? Does anything actually get better or is this just an exercise in marketing an administration that is long on talk and short on solutions?


A city like Utica needs to be lead by someone with bold vision. Ed Hanna had vision. Unfortunately, his investments in our city were not sustainable. Tim Julian started out with vision, but lost it after his second term. Dave Roefaro had vision, but unfortunately it was not his, so he could not maintain it.

That leaves Rob Palmieri. What is his vision? Where does he see our city headed? The biggest problem with our current mayor is, no one knows. He does not share. He won't tip his hand. His vision, if he has one, is that it's good and we are gonna like it. No need to share it. We might ask questions. We may not like everything he wants to do.

We may even have our own ideas for the direction our city is headed!

Utica, our poor little beat-up hometown, has been ruled like a banana republic for years. The natives have sat back and let city hall dictate for so long, we don't remember what is was like to have a voice.
The city slides further into decline, and  we wait for salvation. Our tax dollars are spent faster than the comptroller's office can collect them,  and we hope for a solution. The city gets a little more out of control and we say, maybe this time they will fix it.

It does not appear that the current crop of "Leaders" will be doing any fixing any time soon!

Utica-Condition still critical!