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.
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.
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!