City awaiting word on spare DRI funds

A view of Public Square from the fifth floor of the Lincoln Building in Watertown. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — City officials just want to know what’s going to happen to $2.5 million in Downtown Revitalization Initiative funding that Jefferson Community College turned down.

They haven’t been able to get an answer from the New York Department of State whether the city can use the $2.5 million in DRI money for another downtown project, or whether the money will still be available to the city at all.

“They haven’t been able to give us an answer as to whether the funding can be shifted to something else,” City Manager Kenneth A. Mix said.

In 2017, the city was awarded $10 million in DRI funding for 10 downtown projects designed to be transformative. The $2.5 million represents one-fourth of the state grant.

Most recently, the subject came up during a Sept. 9 discussion with the city and the city’s Department of State representative about the progress of the city’s DRI projects.

In the past, the city and the state have discussed the fate of the JCC funding on several other occasions, said Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community director.

It’s been nearly a year since the Department of State, which oversees the state’s DRI program, agreed that the city could reallocate the JCC funds for another project, but hasn’t given the city any other direction.

The Watertown YMCA has been the most talked about recipient of the $2.5 million for its planned community center in a former call center at 1068 Arsenal St. The cost of that project has drastically increased in recent months.

The city also hopes to acquire some of the money for a $1.6 million downtown streetscape project it plans to complete next year, while the Jefferson County Historical Society also expressed interest in obtaining DRI funds for its renovations at its Washington Street museum.

“I’m just optimistic it will be there,” Mr. Lumbis said, adding that he’s “slightly concerned” that the state won’t allocate the JCC money. “I think we’ll end up getting it for a downtown project.”

The city is interested in the funding for the streetscape project that includes renovating Lachenauer Plaza and making improvements to portions of Court, Coffeen and Franklin streets.

The YMCA project to convert the call center into a community and aquatics center did not receive any DRI funding.

Officials have been working on the project for about two years, but its cost has increased by about $5 million because of an environmental issue at the site and a supply shortage caused by the pandemic.

YMCA officials now plan for construction to start in January. Originally slated for August 2022, the community center now won’t be ready for occupancy until May 2023.

The historical society obtained $506,000 in DRI money, but is $174,000 short for the elevator portion of its project. Historical society and YMCA officials have both expressed interest in receiving the JCC funding for their projects.

City Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero, former historical society board president, said material shortages have caused the cost increase of the historical society renovations. She said the museum would be handicapped accessible if the elevator is installed.

Last December, JCC officials pulled the plug on opening a downtown entrepreneurial training center, blaming the coronavirus pandemic for ultimately causing the college to pull out of the city’s $10 million DRI program.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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