Councilors vote down city's pursuit of Restore NY grant

May 17—PLATTSBURGH — City of Plattsburgh councilors unanimously voted down a measure Thursday night that would have allowed Mayor Chris Rosenquest to sign and submit an application for a $2.5 million state grant to redevelop a vacant downtown property.

The property in question is located at 2 Brinkerhoff St. and the city previously said the owner of it, White Rainbow LLC, hoped to convert the building there into a 10-room boutique hotel and restaurant with the help of an Empire State Development Restore NY Communities Initiative grant.

Under the guidelines of the Restore NY program, any potential application is required to be submitted by a municipality in coordination with a private partner.

So after learning about White Rainbow LLC's desire for the grant, the city's community development office worked with them to ensure a letter of intent to apply for the grant was submitted to Empire State Development before a March 25 deadline.

The actual application was then due by May 22.


However, when the grant application approval came before the council on Thursday, no councilor wanted the city to pursue the Brinkerhoff Street project.

In discussing the matter, Councilor Elizabeth Gibbs (D-Ward 3) said the council was never given an opportunity to provide input or collaboration on what potential projects may be selected for the grant application prior to that March deadline.

Additionally, Gibbs said the person who approached the city about pursuing the grant is the landlord of Mayor Rosenquest's business at 30 City Hall Place, Chapter One: Coffee & Tea. A fact Rosenquest confirmed to the media after the meeting.

"I think that the 2 Brinkerhoff St. idea is fantastic," Gibbs continued. "I cannot in good conscience vote for this project."

"I think it is great that an abandoned building downtown will have new life, but as stewards of the city taxpayer money, I cannot make decisions that look unethical, and this looks like impropriety."

Councilor Julie Baughn (D-Ward 1) also agreed the project is a good idea and could benefit downtown but didn't agree with the path taken to pursue it.

"The council had little to no idea this was being pursued or even considered," she said

"...This grant is one that should be used to benefit the city as a whole, such as possibly housing."


Both Gibbs and Baughn's statements about the council not being involved contradict the language written in the grant resolution that was put before them to vote on Thursday. According to that resolution, it said the Common Council considered proposals that qualify for funding under the program and selected one project: the Brinkerhoff project.

"It has to be written that way in order for ESD to consider the application," Gibbs said Friday when asked about the way the resolution was written.

"It's not acceptable. It's completely misleading, it's false and it's a lie to the public."

She said the mayor should have included not only the council in early discussions about which project should be supported with potential funding, but the public, too.

Prior to the vote at Thursday's meeting, the city held a public hearing to receive community feedback on its plan to pursue the grant for the Brinkerhoff project and the city's intention to submit an application in next year's Restore NY grant cycle: the remediation and restoration of the historic property located at 206 US Oval.

All who spoke during the public hearing were not supportive of the Brinkerhoff project.


Steve Brodi, owner of multiple businesses on Margaret Street, including the Antique and Variety Mall, said he will be opening up a new business in the next few months and had previously asked the community development office about potential grants or loans available and was directed to the Revolving Loan Fund.

"And then we find out there's a grant for $2.5 million," he said.

"I was looking for it and I knew nothing about it. I would have loved to apply for it."

Other residents took issue with the city's lack of communication with the applications for the grants and the short notice given about the public hearing.

"As somebody from the outside looking in, I truly believe that there was a gatekeeping when it came to opportunities revolving around this grant. and I just don't believe that's an appropriate way to operate things like this," Iris Cain said.

"I think everybody should have the information in front of them to pursue these opportunities and I think everybody should be given the same information when they ask about these opportunities."


Gibbs told the Press-Republican that by the time the public knew about the project, it was too late to appropriately take their feedback into consideration and possibly reverse course to another project to apply for by the deadline.

Now, the city won't be applying for this year's round of funding. Gibbs said she is worried the city's handling of the grant process will also jeopardize them from getting future funding.

"It jeopardizes our standing in these offices, and it lowers our consideration on the rung," she said.

"There are all these municipalities that want this money, and if Plattsburgh keeps sending in applications but we have debacles like last night (Thursday) or even when the last Restore NY application was done, why would they consider us over and over again? This is what is at stake. It's incredible mismanagement, it's incredibly disrespectful to the public, and it's disrespectful to the council — we were not even a consideration in this."

In talking to the media after the meeting, Rosenquest had a similar view about how the handling of the grant application will sway the state moving forward.

"We'll see how it goes. Like this round, we probably won't apply for anything for Restore NY, which is unfortunate," he said, adding that it has been a long time since the North Country received this award.

"And so when state agencies look at what we're doing and what we're not doing, and they see we're not taking action on these very lucrative opportunities, it sends a message."


Asked about his reaction to all six councilors voting no to pursue the grant, Rosenquest said "That's their decision to make."

"It just comes back to the need for a true view of what it means for our city to be focused on economic development, focused on opportunities like this," he continued.

"My office again has never been averse to hearing feedback, taking that feedback and making changes, but when we don't get anything, that's the way it is."

Rosenquest did not agree with the criticisms about his connection to the Brinkerhoff project owner as well.

"What does that mean? Does that mean I'm trying to grease the pockets of somebody I'm paying rent to? Which would be weird," he said.

"Also, we live in a small community, I have no control over who owns my building and who applies for other grants. That's just it is what it is."

He said he was not "typically" involved in the decision making process for which project was selected.

"Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. There are conversations about it. I give my opinion and I let my team make that decision. They are experts and I trust them to do that. I trusted this process. I do not disagree with how the process went. I will stand behind how the process went and in the projects that were chosen."


In looking at potential conflicts of interest, he said "it's pretty clear what the charter says and pretty clear what the language of the law says."

"And people can interpret it how they interpret it. I leave it to the legal team to interpret it how it is, and if that's the case, then I recuse myself, and that's pretty straightforward. That's pretty simple," Rosenquest continued.

"But to use that as a leverage, or use that as a tool to somehow discount the importance of that project, or the importance of any project, I think that's unfortunate, because, again, if there were some impropriety or if there were some conflicts of interest, it's easy enough for me to just recuse myself out of that, which, again, I have no problem doing. But when you look at it, I don't think that's the case and legal doesn't think that's the case."

Gibbs further disagreed about the mayor's possible ability to recuse himself from this situation. She said regardless, his signature has to go on the application to state.

"There is no other signing officer at the city, that's only him."


Twitter: CarlySNewton