Mayor Andre Rainey of Peekskill is jumping in with both feet, literally, in the effort to figure out how to get the most bang for the $10 million the city is getting in a state Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant.
He has been leading walking tours of Peekskill’s downtown for civic leaders as well as the news media, visiting key sites such as the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater, the sculpture of a diver by the waterfront, the James Street parking garage and the gazebo at the intersection of North Division Street and Central Avenue.
“The purpose of the walk-throughs was to give people a visual idea of some of the things we presented in the DRI initiative application, and show them some of the great things that Peekskill’s downtown has to offer,” Rainey told the Business Journal.
On Aug. 14, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Peekskill was the winner of the $10 million first place award for the mid-Hudson Valley region in the state’s 2019 downtown revitalization competition.
The city’s application pointed out that in 2018 its downtown was designated as a federal opportunity zone, allowing capital gains tax benefits for investors and developers, on top of the existing Downtown National Register Historic District, which allows developers to receive historic preservation tax credits.
The application identified 14 proposals to improve the downtown, but haven’t been undertaken due to a lack of funding. Among them were rebuilding the downtown gazebo, improving downtown parking and signs, making upgrades at the Paramount Theater, improving the Fleischmann Pier and other waterfront elements, creating a multimedia center and community arts space and making streetscape improvements to connect commuter parking lots with the train station while advancing pedestrian safety and improving traffic patterns. The application also stated that the city is in need of a marketing and branding campaign.
“DRI funding would generate tangible products (videos, print material, website, banners, etc.) that highlight Peekskill’s assets and announce that we are a community that is ‘on the move’ and open for business,” the application stated.
The first $300,000 of the grant is being allocated to cover the costs of developing a strategic investment plan, which will determine what to do with the remaining $9.7 million. A committee of city representatives, community leaders and other stakeholders will prepare the plan along with consultants and decide which projects should receive green lights.
“I would hope that it wouldn’t become a political football,” Rainey said. “This isn’t a grant for me. This is a grant for the entire city. This is our fourth year of attempting to get it. There should be no political games with this because this is going to dictate the entire future for our city regardless of what party line you’re registered in.”
Vincent A. Vesce, a former city councilman who is running against Rainey in the Nov. 5 election, told the Business Journal, “I think it’s great for us to be afforded this opportunity to really kick start downtown economic development. The business community really rallied around the application process in connection with the Peekskill Planning Department and we have a BID (Business Improvement District) here in Peekskill and the BID played a unique role in that.”
Vesce said the fact of the city getting the grant is not by itself a political issue.
“We may have different ideas,” he said. “We’re more interested in potentially spending that money on infrastructure that can support future development. The city’s been growing at such a pace and Peekskill is really on the rise. So, we may have differences of opinion. There’s going to be a big discussion in the community of how that money is spent.”
The Paramount Theater, owned by the city, has been a focus of the Rainey administration. It has been seeking a new operator for the 1,100-seat venue. The city would like to attract an experienced operator that also has the show business clout to be able to bring big-name acts to the stage. In its funding application, the city said the facility needed an upgraded heating and air conditioning system and an “internal food and beverage venue.” First opened for movies in June 1930, the theater fell on hard times and was acquired by the city in 1977 in a tax default proceeding.
“Even before I became mayor, the Paramount was special to me,” Rainey said. “The very first stage I performed on, I was 17 years old, was the Paramount Theater. I did spoken-word poetry. It was a ‘stop the violence’ event. After that performance, I’ve been able to perform at the Apollo Theater. I was able to perform at one of the Madison Square Garden stages, but the very first stage I performed on was my home stage, the Paramount Theater.”
The city’s waterfront was highlighted in the city’s application. It suggested rebuilding Fleischmann Pier as a tourist attraction and creating an event space for open-air entertainment in Charles Point Pier Park along with floating docks for small watercraft and a new 480-foot-long pier for tourism vessels. The application suggested that money from a grant could be used to create a maritime tourism industry for Peekskill.
The Golden Mean, a 12 1/2-foot-tall sculpture in bronze with gold-leaf highlights created in 2012 by artist Carole A. Feuerman, was purchased by Peekskill and installed at the waterfront. It shows a male diver in a bathing cap and Speedo-like swimsuit standing on his hands with his back arched and legs in the air.
“It’s a landmark,” Rainey said. “In California, you must go to Venice Beach. In Peekskill, you must go to that diver. When people come to Peekskill, they take a picture by the diver. People just do it.”
The application asked for funds to design and rebuild the city-owned plaza with the downtown gazebo to “re-create a welcoming gathering place in the city center.” Rainey said there can be even more activity there than already takes place.
“We host our block parties and festivals and everything you can think of during the spring, summer and fall months in that downtown. The gazebo is certainly going to get a facelift with this DRI,” he said.
Another possible project listed in the application dealt with the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester. The city, along with the Peekskill Housing Authority, was working with someone described only as a “committed philanthropist” to bring a branch of the club to downtown Peekskill. It would involve renovating and expanding the Kiley Youth Center at 709 Main St.
“We have many developers who have invested in this city in the course of the last four or eight years and that has helped get us into the shape we’re in right now,” Rainey said. “Peekskill had so much to offer with the arts, entertainment and restaurants. Developers and business owners and families realize that. They understand that.”
Rainey said his vision is to continue turning Peekskill into a 21st century city through technology, programs designed for youth and catering to businesses.
“We want the economic development so the millennials, the seniors, everyone has a place to call home. Right now, I believe we’re going in that direction,” he said. “We got the $10 million grant for downtown. We got a $2.4 million increase in our education funding. We just got $50,000 for our youth bureau, $1.5 million for our youth center. The city is going to thrive.
“Before we had this grant, the city of Peekskill was attracting people. With this help, it’s almost a guarantee that it will attract more.”