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Upstate Unplugged: What happens when small towns and villages struggle to compete for state grants?

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  • Josh Durso 

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Small towns and villages might literally disappear if NYS doesn’t find resources for them.

Success as a small town or village in New York hinges on strong planning. While there’s been plenty of attention on programs like the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and smaller NY Forward program aimed at helping those communities bridge the financial gap — they actually create secondary challenges.

Last week we focused on the Village of Montour Falls, who won $4.5 million as part of that NY Forward program. Montour Falls has a population of 1,500+, which puts them at the higher-end of most-populous villages. Especially in the Finger Lakes or Central New York.

This week we caught up with Lodi Town Supervisor Kyle Barnhart, who before being elected to his town position, served as mayor in the village. For comparison, the Village of Lodi has a population of less than 300, and an annual municipal budget of around $50,000.

Here’s an undeniable fact: In order for towns and villages like Lodi to succeed – they will not only need to work together, but also find ways to secure state funding. While the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative prize might be a stretch- the smaller NY Forward grant should be achievable … but it’s not.

Comprehensive planning is expensive

Supervisor Barnhart says the Town of Lodi has focused its recent attention on updating its comprehensive plan. “This is really important for us,” he recalled. “We are a community that has generally been resistant to zoning. And now we are seeing issues that are normally address through Lane Use and Planning.”

Lack of concrete plans or zoning rules etched out in black-and-white means developments solar farms, which have become a sometimes-controversial topic across the region have no checks-or-balances. “We’re just digging into that now to see what kind of approach we want to take,” Barnhart explained.

It’s worth noting that the Town Board, like most governing bodies across rural portions of Upstate New York lean conservative- in values and finances.

While Lodi’s comprehensive plan isn’t up-to-date — it’s something. And having something is better than nothing. “We’ve really cracked the code in terms of starting to get frant funding flowing to Lodi, so for now, I’m pushing for an updated comprehensive plan that would set us up for many more hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to come into the town to kickstart revitalization,” Barnhart explained.

Flood of 2018 not forgotten

But even with comprehensive planning on the minds of local officials — it’s been hard to look past one of the most historically significant natural disasters in Seneca County’s history.

“We’re still dealing with a number of issues related to the 2018 flood, culverts and bridges, and you fix one thing and another thing pops up,” Barnhart explained. “We’ve been trying to thread the needle on on how to get additional support. You know, we’ve got a lot of financial support from FEMA and the State Department of Homeland Security from the 2018 flood. But then they didn’t cover some sort of secondary or tertiary problems that our taxpayers are having to cover now, such as culverts, that that weren’t covered under the project.”

He says navigating this has been a major challenge. Most notably because the multi-million dollar projects in play, and ultimately will rest on taxpayers shoulders, are not typical or familiar territory for a town like Lodi.

“Most of our focus is down at the lake, trying to figure out what the next 10 to 15 years look like with streams and erosion and things like that, because we’re still seeing a lot of erosion and sediment build up down there, which causes further floods and damage.”

Small towns and villages left out

If a small town or village can muster up the resources and energy to put together a comprehensive plan — there’s a chance they could secure big money. But for many of these communities — the need for a ‘local match’ in nearly all state grants, as well as that aforementioned cost associated with comprehensive planning — means they’re simply left out.

It sounds really nice to think everyone has a chance. That’s certainly the impression state officials leave the public with when discussing grant programs like NY Forward, which as described in our last newsletter by Montour Falls Mayor James Ryan, was created for communities that weren’t as likely to win the $10 million DRI.

As Barnhart pointed out, these two realities mean the smallest, most-financially strained villages and towns are left looking at other options. For villages, the state pushes them toward dissolving into their surrounding township. On paper, that might look like a better choice. But for people who live in these communities — who already give up so much everyday just by calling these places home — it feels a bit unfair.

Obviously, these communities should have another option. One that actually gives them a fighting chance.

As I wrap up this week’s Upstate Unplugged I’m reminded of a story a couple weeks ago, which pointed to urban centers like Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo gaining residents — not enough to offset population losses as a whole in New York, and not from places outside the state — but rather from other, smaller communities.

A new drain on rural communities across Upstate New York: Our very own cities where access to services, quality of life, and other resources (that should be available everywhere in 2023) are, in fact, widely available to everyone.