Op-ed column: Schenectady must find way to shine beyond downtown
What are the responsibilities of a city? Cities are defined merely by population and type of ruling government, but it varies from state to state. That being said, there doesn’t seem to be a common conception of what role a city should play in the lives of its residents.
This takes us to the city of Schenectady, which is home to roughly 66,000 residents over a span of 10.78 square miles. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Schenectady has a poverty rate of 20.6 percent and, as many residents can attest to, a crime rate that is very disconcerting. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city currently has an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent, which is well above the national average.
This raises a philosophical question — should a city, like Schenectady, feel some sort of obligation to assure its residents that it will make available, directly or indirectly, adequate job opportunities and a living environment for them to thrive and feel safe in?
Like a business that depends on consumers, a city depends on residents. The more consumers willing to purchase goods and services, the more profitable a business will be. Similarly, one could attempt to argue that the more residents it has, the more profitable the city will be. But this kind of thinking has its limits.
A business doesn’t care about the economic or moral makeup of a consumer who buys its product, as long as they pay for it. A city, on the other hand, ideally wants all of its residents to pay their taxes, live peacefully and have good-paying jobs. That’s the only way a city can truly be profitable.
But what can the leaders of Schenectady, i.e. the mayor, City Council and department heads, do to improve the lives of its residents for the good of the city? More important, how can they decrease unemployment? By bringing in jobs and improving neighborhoods.
Downtown Schenectady is flourishing. The Metroplex Development Authority has poured many millions of dollars over the past decade into improving and revitalizing the downtown area. With the hope of increasing tourism, Metroplex has encouraged many businesses to bring their services and establishments to the city through tax breaks and grants.
There’s no doubt that this initiative has been successful for the city, but what about its residents? Sure they can grab a bite to eat at various restaurants, catch a flick at the local cinema or watch a musical at Proctors. That’s all well and good, but are their lives really that improved? No. For those of us with some cash to spare, we are more entertained and have more dining options available to us than ever before. For the rest of the population, hard times still continue, especially for the thousands of residents who remain unemployed.
The Electric City shines brightest in the downtown area, but many of the surrounding neighborhoods continue to look bleak, as they are impoverished and neglected.
When the unemployment rate rises, so does crime and poverty. This has a compounding effect on the city’s main sources of revenue — property and sales tax. It’s no wonder Schenectady is struggling financially, with significant budget deficits in the foreseeable future.
The economics of a city are far more complex than that of a business. Businesses analyze supply and demand using statistical data, such as the Consumer Price Index, in order to estimate profit margins. If demand isn’t there, supply is usually reduced and prices drop. If demand is there, supply is usually increased and prices rise.
A city struggles between supply and demand. Providing services to its residents is arguably the most costly expense in the annual budget. In addition, the more residents a city has, the higher the cost to provide these services.
If a city has low crime, poverty and unemployment rates, then residents will need less of certain services, which will reduce overall demand. A city can then reallocate the funds not spent on these services to lower taxes and spend more on capital projects, which in turn can improve neighborhoods.
But in order for Schenectady to reduce high crime, poverty and unemployment rates, it must decide whether it should act like a parent continuing to develop and provide for a child, or act more like a business that sells its products and services to consumers. Will it feel morally obliged to provide more than just basic services to its residents, or be apathetic and strictly profit-seeking?
Schenectady’s leaders need to focus on investing in neighborhoods such as Mont Pleasant, Hamilton Hill and Bellevue, just to name a few, by creating new business improvement districts, along with beautification and revitalization groups. They need to get retailers and manufacturers, the real job-creating businesses, to put down roots in these areas so that many blue-collar workers can get back to work.
After all, a city that provides ample jobs and a clean living environment to its residents will not only prosper, but make itself a shining example for everyone to see.
The city of Schenectady owes it to its residents to give them an opportunity to live freely, safely and happily.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.