The following article, written by members of Main Street First, was recently published in the Mohawk Valley Express. The article describes several instances in which the City of Little Falls chose investment in existing downton buildings and institutions over new construction outside of the city center. These include investments in Benton Hall Academy, the city pool, the library, and the YMCA. Little Falls must once again make a choice between development options. As the MSF economic impact study has shown, the city cannot support both the quarry project and the redevelopment of Shoppers Square. Some supporters of the quarry project insist that the city can in fact support both projects. We encourage everyone in the Little Falls area to read the economic impact study and carefully consider the choices before us.
A Four Decade History of Institutional Revitalization in Little Falls
The current community debate regarding the nature and direction of future commercial growth in Little Falls presents our community with the opportunity for reflection. We can look back with a sense of pride at past successful redevelopment efforts and perhaps learn a lesson as we make decisions about future commercial growth; redevelopment at Shoppers Square or new development at the Quarry. It is not possible for both projects to move forward.
Beginning in the 1970’s with the revitalization of our YMCA, continuing in the 1980’s with the addition on the Little Falls Public Library, into the 1990’s with the reconstruction of Benton Hall Academy and the Adirondack Bank building and in 2009 with the reconstruction of our municipal swimming pool, we have consistently chosen to rehabilitate rather than replace or relocate our community institutions.
At other times we have chosen to employ creative adaptive reuse strategies in converting existing institutions to other uses. Churches, factories and schools in our community have been given “second lives” as retail establishments and residences. Redevelopment and adaptive reuse have a common theme; build on the work of our ancestors and forbearers rather than choosing the risky path of abandonment and relocation.
In the mid-1970’s our YMCA was on the brink of bankruptcy and insolvency. Years of creative reconstruction and mission expansion have resulted in a mixed use facility that is at the core of the fitness and recreational life of Little Falls while also fulfilling an important social service function.
The completion of an architecturally consistent addition to our public library in 1981 allowed us to expand an undersized facility. Coupled with the 1996 reconstruction of Benton Hall and the decision to close off lower Alexander Street and expand Eastern Park to include a beautiful playground for our youth provides Little Falls with an community resource second to none. At the time, some residences pushed for a new elementary school near the high school. If we had chosen that direction we would have been left with a decaying hulk in the middle of the city.
By the early 1990’s we did have a decaying five story hulk in our city center – the former Herkimer County Trust Co. building. Instead of abandonment and demolition, an extensive reconstruction project yielded an impressive refurbished commercial building.
In 2006 it was decided not to operate our city pool. Years of neglect and lack of timely maintenance had left the facility in woeful disrepair. An exorbitantly expensive design plan for a new pool at a close by location failed to generate the necessary political support and the pool remained closed for three seasons. 2009 brought different political vision and a full-scale affordable reconstruction project was launched. City workers and volunteers did much of the work. The beautifully reconstructed facility reopened last August which, with proper stewardship, should serve our community for many years.
What do all of these projects have in common? What lessons can we learn from our past regarding Shoppers Square and the Quarry Project?
Over these four decades we have consistently chosen to maintain our core institutions through community sacrifice, shared vision and the wisdom to renovate and revitalize rather than abandon and relocate. Compare these choices to the early 1960’s decision to demolish half of our downtown and replace it with Shoppers Square. Most residents now agree that this was not the right choice.
And now we are once again at a community crossroads. We debate the comparative wisdom of the demolition and replacement of Shoppers Square with a two building complex versus the two store Quarry Project at the edge of the city. Each offers us a shiny new destination supermarket. Thus far the Quarry Project has been the preference of local elected officials. County government sponsored low interest loans have been offered to a private developer to build a plaza that would in all likelihood drive out locally owned small businesses.
One has to ask why? Why abandon the four decade long successful practice of reconstruction at already existing locations in favor of a risky commercial venture that would all but certainly leave us with a decaying hulk in our downtown commercial district? Why all but ignore economic impact studies that validate the importance of a full service supermarket in our downtown area and reveal the negatives of the Quarry Project? How can this economic data be dismissed out of hand?
Little Falls is at a crossroads, we must decide between two competing commercial alternatives. If the Quarry Project is built, Shoppers Square reconstruction will become much less attractive to developers. Which choice best meets the long term interests of our community? If the Quarry Project is built, Shoppers Square reconstruction will not be possible.
You can read the economic impact study here.