The Colgate Scene
May 1999
Table of contents
Something's up downtown

by James Leach
[IMAGE]
  • At 7:00 on an April morning, two local bankers, a contractor, two students, their professor, a community developer, and two college administrators huddled over coffee and pastries downtown at the Barge Canal Coffee Company. They were brainstorming ways to jump start economic development in the community.

  • On a Friday evening, a merchant, a contractor, an artist, a realtor, a grantsperson, a dean, an executive director, a writer and two preservationists gathered around a table in the back of a Hamilton shop, munching pizza as they reviewed architects' proposals. Their project will restore facades in Hamilton's business district.

  • Colgate students stopped area residents as they left the Hamilton Post Office one week last fall, collecting data on their use of the village green. The research supported a proposal to renovate the popular center of community activity. Months later, at the Village Hall, Hamilton's mayor convened a conservationist, an architect, a music professor, a grant writer and three former mayors to critique the drawings for the revitalized green and a new bandstand.

  • Yet another meeting in the Village Hall, and a special committee gathered to talk about the village's newly acquired municipal airport. Their plan is to attract small businesses to locate at the site.

  • At the Village Courthouse, the town supervisor opened a public hearing to discuss a long-range plan to preserve open spaces and aquifers, support local agriculture, and develop the town's hamlets. The plan later won the town board's approval.

  • Last summer, Colgate students scoured the countryside and produced a census of more than 60 home-based businesses. Their research would lead to a proposal for small business development.

  • At the statehouse in Albany, Governor Pataki heard President Neil Grabois describe the college's desire to apply even more of its intellectual and economic resources to issues in its neighborhood. Already Colgate underwrites local governments, schools and community services, and the college-owned inn, golf course and coffee shop attract townspeople and visitors. The governor supports the collaboration.

  • On four early Friday mornings since the new year, the Hamilton Forum has attracted upwards of 100 people to hear speakers address community issues. Sponsored by the village and the college, the open forum convenes at the Colgate Inn.

  • At Merrill House one winter day, the chair of Colgate's trustee committee on buildings and grounds (Bill Finard '68), sat with the mayor, the town supervisor, the author of the town's long-range plan and a handful of others to talk about the growing movement for area revitalization. The college's trustees, Finard said, are invested in the community's future, as well.

  • In Ho Lecture Room on campus, the Alumni Corporation's board of directors spent a Saturday afternoon discussing community initiatives. The board voted $10,000 to support a newly formed, non-profit group that fosters area development.

  • In a room at the back of Hamilton's Public Library one April evening, a coalition of local folks reached a milestone after nine months of planning when they approved a mission statement, adopted bylaws, and elected as the first president of the Partnership for Community Development a woman who left her law practice to return to the family farm. With a board representing village, town and college, the partnership has set out to provide coordination and continuity for an array of community projects -- essentially to harness a level of community energy that many longtime residents say is unprecedented.

Assessing the possibilities
So many independent initiatives were sparking community interest late last summer that organizers seized the opportunity to combine their efforts. At an August meeting in President Grabois' office, representatives from the village, town and college agreed to engage the help of a Troy, NY, planning group (River Street Planning & Development) to coordinate their ventures.

     The Village of Hamilton's mayor attended, as did the Town of Hamilton's supervisor and the author of the town's proposed long-range plan. Grabois, Treasurer Elizabeth Eismeier, and sociologist Adam Weinberg represented the college. River Street's principals were accompanied by their local representative, Kate Lucey of Hamilton.

     By the end of the session, all agreed that they were presented with a rare opportunity to join forces and advance the community. Just how to do that became the winter's work.

     In meeting upon meeting where a core group was joined by an evolving cast of volunteers, conversations ranged across organizing structures and the identification of priority projects that had a reasonable chance to succeed. One goal was formation of a not-for-profit organization to receive and administer gifts and grants for area development and provide continuity as administrations inevitably changed in the village and town.

     River Street led the group through discussions that focused on a mission statement. The town and village boards met in joint session to review the planning, then voted funds to support the project. An attorney prepared papers of incorporation. And in March, the Partnership for Community Development met with a goal of "advancing initiatives that enhance economic opportunity and community vitality in and around the Town and Village of Hamilton."

     By spring the group was focused on four priority projects:

     Improvements to the Hamilton village green. Hamilton's village green is a center for activities year 'round. But an active farmers' market from spring through late fall, outdoor concerts, the annual Town/Gown Picnic, a holiday tree lighting and carol sing, and informal gathering and relaxation every day have taken a toll. Vegetation is aging, and benches, tables, the fountain and bandstand are showing signs of wear.

     Mayor Stella Brink's park committee is finalizing architect's plans, and the partnership, through Lucey and local volunteers, is raising money. The $300,000 plan includes grant requests totaling $150,000, to be matched by $150,000 in local fundraising.

     Facade and streetscape renovation. Over the years some of the architectural character of Hamilton's building facades has been hidden as businesses and tenants remodeled. After surveying building owners to determine their interest in renewing the downtown, the partnership has applied for grants to hire architects who will research and present a plan for downtown restoration. The partnership is developing a program of grants and low-interest loans to help owners fund the renovations.

     Small business development. This summer Colgate student interns will be working with the partnership staff to identify sources of technical assistance to teach a class or serve as mentors to small businesses. The program is slated to begin in January 2000. Any alumni interested in volunteering or learning more about the program are invited to contact Lucey in care of the Scene.

     Arts initiative. The partnership is in the early stages of developing a facility to foster the work of local artists and crafters by creating a retail and marketing center in downtown Hamilton. Funding sources will be approached early next year.

     Layered over all these initiatives is work with the village committee that seeks to develop a business park at Hamilton Municipal Airport. Already the efforts of a new airport manager have resulted in a large increase in airport traffic.

     "This is all very exciting," said Eve Ann Shwartz, the attorney/farmer whose work on the town's long-range plan provided much of the momentum for the current projects. Newly elected as the partnership's first president, Shwartz said, "We welcome the interest and involvement of Colgate alumni." She and the other members of the Partnership for Community Development can be reached in care of The Colgate Scene.

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