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In 1996, these creative efforts were aligned under the umbrella of the 440 Board, which was incorporated with the mission of creating an arts scene downtown, and in 1998 the city designated the corridor on State Street that extends from Nott Terrace to Erie Boulevard as an arts and entertainment district, thus giving the area an official identity and destiny.
That same year, Apkarian and fellow board members including Union College President Roger Hull lobbied then-Governor George Pataki to create an authority that would be funded through sales taxes. This authority would have the ability to bond projects downtown and make sites move-in ready. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, as it has come to be known, is the commerce portion of Schenectady’s regenerative efforts, a complementary agency whose sole purpose is to recruit and groom the right businesses for downtown Schenectady.
“We had a philosophy. We didn’t want our downtown to look like just any other downtown,” says Scott Cietek, vice president of economic development for the Metroplex. Instead, the agency focused on playing up regional offerings, attracting businesses that are distinct to this area, like Villa Italia, Bomber’s, and Aperitivo Bistro. Once it matches tenants with sites, the Metroplex has the authority to clear most obstacles, whether it is working out parking issues or building a new faÇade. In this way, the Metroplex has secured desirable investors like the Hampton Inn and Bow-Tie Cinemas, as well as local heroes like Angelo Mazzone and Matthew Baumgartner.
Mazzone, who operates a number of successful restaurants in the region including The Glen Sanders Mansion and Angelo’s 677 Prime, was approached by the Metroplex to invest in the neighborhood in 2006. Mazzone bought five buildings on State Street, and remade one into Aperitivo, an urban-chic bistro that caters to the theater crowd looking for a quick bite or drink before the show. The restaurant opened in November 2007 to rave reviews, and its high tables and long bar are filled with a lively crowd most nights of the week.
Mazzone says that working with the Metroplex made the whole project easy. “Ray Gillen [Metroplex chair] coordinated the whole thing,” he says. “And I don’t think anyone could have done what he’s done for downtown Schenectady.”
Matthew Baumgartner owns Bomber’s, a successful bar and restaurant in Albany’s Lark Street neighborhood that is known for its behemoth burritos and wild trivia nights. Last year, Metroplex invited him to open a similar venture downtown. One year later, and he has just closed on his $500,000 location on State Street and can’t wait to open its doors. “It’s been an amazing experience. I don’t know many cities with agencies whose sole responsibility it is to bring business to the area. [The Metroplex] really pulled for it and facilitated the whole thing,” Baumgartner says.
The key to all that facilitation, of course, is money. (“How much money can you throw at it? That’s what it all boils down to,” explains Cietek. “The greatest idea—if you don’t have any money—that’s what it stays: a great idea.”) To fund what it does, the Metroplex collects a portion of the sales tax, about .5 percent, or $8 million last year. This gives the agency a budget for planning, financing, and maintaining buildings within the district.
Over the course of the last 10 years the agency has spent about $60 million removing stumbling blocks for prospective tenants, which in turn has translated into $300 million worth of public and private investment downtown. This represents a level of investment that is usually found only near arenas or manufacturing plants. “We had none of that,” Cietek says with a laugh. “We started around a 2,600-seat vaudeville theater.”
Metroplex got the development ball rolling by persuading MVP Health Care to expand their headquarters downtown, and they lobbied hard to bring the state’s Department of Transportation offices downtown. These large employers provided a foundation for growth, putting workers on the streets at lunchtime and after work. Next, the area needed a movie theater, so Metroplex vetted 15 different companies before settling on Bow-Tie Cinemas, a Connecticut company with proven track record in first-run movies. The six-screen theater opened last year, and welcomed a whopping 300,000 visitors, making it the second-highest-grossing theater in the region.
The Metroplex also worked with the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation to administer funds to fix up the street, first reconfiguring the parking, and then helping businesses repair their faÇades. Last year, the DSIC spent about $400,000 in federal grants, local grants, special assessment fees, and donated monies to keep downtown looking beautiful, says Jim Salengo, executive director of the DSIC.