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Elizabeth Young

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Sustaining the Boom

A determined shop owner in downtown Troy has mounted a one-woman campaign to start a Business Improvement District in the city

By Chet Hardin

Elizabeth Young had just opened her River Street antiques shop when she was paid a visit by one of Troy’s most notable business titans, John Hedley. She was excited. “I’d heard so much about him, and I was a new business owner. I mentioned to him my interest in becoming involved in the business community.” They talked about business improvement districts, and what the chances were of establishing one in Troy. “It was just synergistic. It worked so well. He had started to reenergize the process of starting a BID through the TDC and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it.”

The Troy Downtown Collaborative, a nonprofit collection of business and property owners, started working on trying to get a BID in 2000. The organization went through the entire process. It went before the public, was overwhelmingly approved by property owners in the district through the process of negative referendum, “and, unfortunately, after being sent to the state comptroller for approval,” Young said, “it was denied.” The original committee didn’t correctly follow the steps of notifying both business and residential tenets in the district. “So it was kind of defeated on a technicality. And, unfortunately, momentum had fallen away, and they let it go.”

In her short time in Troy, the Nassau native has become a fixture in the Troy business community. If you visited the Troy Chowder Fest or Rockin’ on the River events this summer, it’s likely you bumped into her. If you went to Troy’s Pig Out, she probably served you a beer. She is a tireless organizer and volunteer for most of Troy’s recent community-driven outings—including the very successful Troy Night Out, which she played a key role in launching. Last year, Metroland recognized the efforts of Young and her partners in organizing this monthly celebration of Troy’s expanding offering of shops, restaurants, bars, and art galleries. On the last Friday of every month, people from all over the Capital Region venture to Troy’s uniquely walkable downtown and plunk down their hard-earned cash. Young has earned the respect of much of her business community for her efforts to nurture the outing.

Since that synergistic meeting with Hedley, Young, who acts as the part-time director of the TDC, essentially has led the charge for the BID by herself. She has received help and guidance from some of the most entrenched business and property owners in Troy, and from members of City Hall. But this has been a one-woman effort, and a labor of devotion, she says, to the city she adopted and fell in love with.

“I was looking around for an apartment,” Young says about moving back to the region. She had spent her early 20s traveling—New York City, Tokyo, Washington, D.C.—and she was through with the big cities. “I just decided to drive to Troy. Literally, I just walked around, and called phone numbers listed on doors that said they had apartments for rent. And I found the most amazing apartments, like ridiculous apartments.”

She settled into Troy and then opened her antiques business, first as a vendor with Bournebrook Antique Center on River Street, where she thrived. After a year there, she decided to branch out with the store she currently owns.

Troy was enjoying a bit of a boom when Young opened Living Room Antiques nearly three years ago, a downtown renaissance fueled by the real-estate speculation that seems so improbable and shortsighted now, and populated by the migration of people who wanted to abandon the suburban lifestyle and instead help grow a promising urban setting. Now, things have changed. The cycle of Troy’s perpetual resurgence, which the old-timers will tell you has rolled through every decade since the heyday of the Collar City, feels as though it might be heading back downward into the reality of a credit crunch driven by a financial collapse and a state budget that is buckling under its own weight, with no real reprieve in sight.

Young is undeterred. She is simply boundless in her enthusiasm when she describes the potential benefits of a BID for downtown: organizing special events, initiating beautification projects, giving the business community a unified voice. “Now is an excellent time for a BID,” Young says, “to reenergize people in the community, and the business community, and the rest of the Capital Region around us.”

Some people aren’t convinced.

‘I love Troy!” says Michael Lo Porto. “That’s why I am here. Because I love Troy.” Owner of LoPorto’s restaurant on 4th Street in downtown Troy, he is a quintessential Trojan, professing his love for the city on a mildly busy Monday night, guiding a spontaneous history through weathered picture after picture of scenes that form the legend of this once-thriving Manhattan getaway: Proctor’s Theater, the long-gone shops along River and Fourth streets, the long lines and crowded sidewalks, and paintings of the landmarks in Ironweed.

LoPorto is a political player embroiled in the Troy community who rarely finds the delicate way to say what he is thinking. A regular at the contentious City Council meetings, he ran as a Democrat for an at-large seat in 2003, and lost. He is a blunt, often churlish critic of the administration of Mayor Harry Tutunjian—who just so happens to be his nephew by marriage. Ask him about Tutunjian, and you are welcoming an assault of invectives.

After months of a relatively calm and disorganized campaign of opposition to the BID proposal, LoPorto has taken up the charge. And he does have support. On a petition he has been circulating, which clearly states that the undersigned do not support a BID, he has gathered 75 names from business owners and residents on Congress, Ferry, Broadway, 3rd and 4th streets: Chez Paul, Famous Lunch, the Ruck, Manory’s Restaurant, Troy Light Co., Capital Cash, Counties of Ireland, Troy Quick Shoe Repair, Styles Upon Styles, Holmes & Watson, P4, Aquilonia Comics, Shalimar Restaurant, Hills Stationary, A.V. Costa; these are all businesses represented on his petition. “I haven’t even gone south of Fulton Street yet,” he says.

The most contentious elements of the BID—the sticking points for many of its critics—are the 5-percent property tax increase that would be levied against commercial property owners in the BID district, and the permissive referendum that will go before the proposed district to put the BID in place.

For Holmes and Watson’s Matt McKeown, the sticking point is the permissive referendum. He fears that the large property owners, many of whom support the BID, will be given a weighted vote due to their individual property wealth, and will therefore have more of a say.

Young appreciates the concerns, but says that they are due simply to misinformation; McKeown’s concern, she says, is simply unfounded.

A BID is voted into being by a permissive referendum. What that means is that property owners in the proposed district will have a certain period in which to vote on whether or not they want the BID. There are two ways that the BID would not be voted through: If 51 percent of the physical property owners vote no, or if 51 percent of property owners by actual value of their property vote it down, then it will fail.

“It is either or,” says Young, “not one or the other.”

McKeown’s fear, which is shared by many on LoPorto’s petition, is that the largest owners of property in the district will be able to pass the BID through the sheer size of their holdings. But this is not a forgone conclusion, Young argues. In fact, the nature of the vote makes it harder for the larger property owners to railroad the smaller ones. If the opposition parties are motivated, and they turn out to lodge their opposition in strong enough numbers, then the BID will fail.

LoPorto says that he has thrown himself into his opposition because he sees the BID as yet another effort by the large property owners in the city to bilk their struggling, and smaller, counterparts by using the force of law to gather an unnecessary tax.

“These businesses are being bullied,” he exclaims, pointing to his petition. “Would you want another tax on your house?”

LoPorto chafes at the idea of a 5-percent increase in his property taxes. Further, he simply doesn’t believe that the tax will remain at 5 percent.

“The fact that they are putting a 5 percent tax for three years? That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard,” LoPorto exclaims. “Once it is voted in, it never goes away. If it is bonded for three years, what if they take a loan against it? How long will that loan be? They can do it, and then the loan is not satisfied. Some municipalities, they have it, and they start at 5 percent, and that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but what if goes up?”

Young counters that the BID assessment can never go up. Unlike most BIDs in the state, which do tend to start at 5 percent and quickly rise to 20 percent, her BID proposal caps the tax assessment at 5 percent. A cap, she stresses, that is permanent. And if the business owners tire of the BID, or suspect that it will be abused, the proposal includes a follow-up vote in three years to decide whether or not to continue the entity.

Those were ideas that came out of the public meetings, she says, in an effort to comfort some of the fears of the business owners, and they have been written into the official BID proposal that will be going before the district voters, the City Council if passed, and, eventually, the state comptroller for review and approval.

But LoPorto isn’t satisfied. He is convinced, and tells anyone who wants to listen, that once the BID is put into place and given the authority to collect taxes from property owners in downtown, that there will be little leverage to stop it from increasing that tax to whatever it wants, regardless of Young’s assurances.

“The tactic is very clear. It’s the same tactic the Tutunjian administration uses,” he accuses: Promise one thing, and then bully your way into getting another. And as far as Young is concerned, LoPorto says, she is nothing more than a crony for the Tutunjian administration.

“Who is Elizabeth Young?” he asks. “She owns a shop, yeah, yeah. She is a beautiful girl and she speaks well, but who is Elizabeth Young? I’ll tell you: She is Jeff Buell’s girlfriend.” (Buell is the public information officer for the city of Troy, and a Tutunjian appointee.) “If it wasn’t for Jeff Buell, this never would have started. Is Jeff behind this? Absolutely.”

LoPorto sees the BID, put bluntly, as an opportunity to give a politically connected friend of the Tutunjian administration—Young—the job of executive director of the BID, a position that would pay a yearly salary of $50,000.

“The BID will raise roughly $86,000 through its assessment,” he says. Of that money, the director will be paid $50,000. LoPorto wonders just what the BID will reasonably be able to do with the $36,000 remaining. “Plus office expenses, and on and on,” LoPorto says, “there will be nothing left. You won’t be able to plant one daisy! The bottom line: It’s about a job.”

Young looks stunned by the accusation.

“That hurts my feelings,” Young says. “It does. And it is almost hard to respond to, because I know the way that I feel, and I would never, ever do that.” She has heard this accusation before, but has ignored it as typical of the petty, hermetic political environment in Troy. “I didn’t even know Jeff Buell when I started working on this.”

“I started working on the BID because I believe in it as a tool to revitalize downtown Troy and build on the momentum that I can already see trying to take hold. I can tell you that the process of hiring an executive director will be run by the board of directors. They will put together a search, and there will be an entire hiring process and that will have nothing to do with me as the director of the Troy Downtown Collaborative. Might I submit my resume to be considered for that? I am not sure about that.”

Even her most ardent supporters are concerned that a conflict of interest might be created if Young were to take the executive director position.

“Elizabeth Young seems to keep her cool pretty well,” says Ray Wall, co-owner of Jose Malone’s Mexican Irish Restaurant on River Street. A founding member of the Lark Street BID, Wall is a true believer in the power of these districts, and wants to see one in Troy. However, he recommends that the eventual executive director should not be a member of the BID. “I think it would certainly be inappropriate for her to be the executive director. Not to put down any of her efforts, but there appears to be a conflict of interest. It is one of the ways people are undermining the BID, spreading the rumor that the salary was set at $50,000 because she planned on taking the job. And that is the sort of thing you don’t want spreading around.”

Young has a shop, she points out, that would prevent her from having a full-time job. But, as a business owner in the district, she says, she would likely run for a seat on the board of directors. Positions on the board are open to any business owner in the district, and voted on by the business owners.

Further, she points out, the BID would not be reliant entirely on the money raised through the property-tax increase. As a legal nonprofit, the BID would be able to go after multiple revenue streams—donations, grants, event sponsorships—to achieve its goals.

For an example, she says, look to the TDC, a nonprofit organization that provides BID-like services. It got a grant to buy a street sweeper a few years ago. It receives donations for flower baskets and trees, which TDC volunteers hang and plant. It survives on grants, such as the grants it received from the Troy Industrial Development Authority and from the former Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

The TDC won a multiyear commitment from the Troy Redevelopment Foundation, which is $50,000 a year for three years. This is an example of the kinds of money that the BID would seek. Plus, a BID can be more effective in securing grants, as it legally represents a district of thousands of people.

She pauses, and reflects on the gossip and attacks.

“Do people really say that?” she asks. “That I am doing this for a job? That’s really frustrating to me. I work my butt off for this city. I really do. I feel like that accusation is a part of Troy’s political history. And I understand that people could be skeptical, but I bet that those aren’t people who don’t know me. Cause if you know me, you will know I do this because I love Troy.”

“I hope that people can move past pettiness like that,” she says, “political backstabbing and old family feuds. Because if the BID doesn’t go through because of that pettiness, we will just have ourselves to blame for that. ”

Sitting in her River Street antiques store, her door open to a thin stream of browsers, Young is considering writing a letter to the editor in response to an article in The Record. It isn’t that she found anything particularly inaccurate in the article, it is just that after years of planning and preparing and community outreach, she is an expert on the BID process and an adherent to the belief in a positive impact on a community that a BID can have with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of information to share on the subject.

“I use this word all the time: To me, it’s about sustainability,” says Young. “Volunteer efforts are fantastic. We started Troy Night Out on a volunteer effort. We have done so many things on a volunteer effort. But the reality is that people move away.”

Dana Rudolph, who for years ran a novelty artist-made gifts and bead-supply shop on River Street, was the initiator and driving force behind the River Street Festival. Now, Rudolph has sold her shop and moved to Florida, and Young wonders who will take over that festival. With Rudolph gone, will there be a River Street Fest?

This is where the BID would step in.

“We need to have an organization in place that has sustainable funding, and a board of directors, and is a legal entity,” she says, “something that will continue when I am not here, as long as that is what the community wants. Something that isn’t reliant on just one person’s energy.”

The BID would manage current festivals as well trying to launch others. A restaurant week, for example, has been talked about in Troy for years, but no one has stepped forward to manage the organizing.

“But when you have an organization with a plan, specifically written out to get things done,” she says, then the members of the BID, the volunteers from the business community who sit on the board of directors, and the numerous volunteer committees, “when you have an executive director, with a team of interns, whose full-time job is to promote downtown Troy, that is when you see sustainable growth.”

The proposed BID would be a structured organization of volunteers working alongside the board of directors and executive director. “I think that there are people in the community who want to be involved, but don’t know how.”

She sees this as a struggle to draw business to Troy, and to offer them an organization to help them organize, advertise, and communicate.

“I think of this in these terms: Why did I want to open my antique shop in an antiques district? I could have paid less rent somewhere else. I am one thousand square feet of space with one little door to let people in. When I associate myself with a district, that can draw people in, because there are 10 different doors. It just is a good business decision. In a downtown business district, we draw more people as a whole, and when we collaborate, we develop an identity as a whole, which I think does bring in more people. When we band together we are stronger as a whole.”

Young will be mailing out executive summaries of the BID plan as well as a notice of the public hearing scheduled for Dec. 19 at 7 PM at City Hall Council Chambers, to every business tenant, residential tenant, and property owner within the proposed district—thousands of people—and after which, property owners will have 30 days to file their vote at the City Clerk’s office. The BID proposal is online at troybid.org.

chardin@metroland.net


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