By Jamie Organski
More than 150 people came to View in Old Forge Tuesday for two emotionally charged sessions over six hours about a now controversial affordable housing development. In the second of the two sessions, which the Explorer attended, attendees interrogated project developer Bob Calli, executive director of People First over what they perceived as a lack of communication from his organization and substantive changes in the scope of the project.
Despite a general consensus that housing is a critical need for the town of Webb, many attendees of the two separate hearings voiced frustration with the process. Others questioned whether this particular project is a good fit for the community.
The Webb Town Board and People First, a housing authority based out of Utica, have discussed the development on 55 acres of land situated on North Street in Old Forge. The development has been proposed as roughly 52 units of affordable housing, designed for working professionals and young families. However, at the meeting, board members and residents brought up what they see as a lack of clarity from People First about the project details.
Calli began his presentation with an apology to both the Webb Town Board and to the community, stating he dropped the ball when it came to communicating the project’s components and progress.
“I made a mistake,” Calli said. “We stated we would be transparent and share information as we received it and I focused on the [project’s] details instead of sharing the details. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about this community. I can’t do anything more to correct it other than making sure there is clear information going forward.”
Town of Webb Supervisor Bonnie Baker expressed disappointment in the lack of communication surrounding the town’s role in the project, including whether the town would help with costs and whether there would be a payment in lieu of taxes agreement.
Town of Webb Councilman Kurt Gardner said the lack of information left him unable to answer questions from constituents. And he was asked to create a website, but information was either not forthcoming or constantly changing.
Among the concerns from those in attendance:
Who will live there?: Those in attendance said they were still unsure who the development is for, as occupants from workers to seniors to low-income residents have been suggested.
“We have heard the comments from community members about [People First] relocating and transporting all these ‘undesirables’ to Old Forge, [creating] a development made up of people on welfare,” Calli said. “That has never been in the cards. From Day 1, we never talked about that…We would look to Otter Lake, Inlet – other places in close proximity to Old Forge to fill units.”
Town of Webb Councilman Tom Greco said he believed many people who may need such housing were not at the meeting, inquiring whether there would be another way to reach them such as a regional survey.
Will People First make money off the project? One attendee asked if People First would realize a profit from the proposed housing development. These projects do make money, Calli said, but there are restrictions on the amount of money which can be earned. People First sees about $50,000 to $70,000 profit annually from its 50-unit complex in Utica, according to Calli. Calli said People First intended to share a portion of the profits from the Old Forge housing development should it come to fruition.
Calli also mentioned an opportunity to assist the town as it looks to secure grant funds to improve their aging infrastructure, including a sewer system that is 100 years old in some areas. Calli said People First would be willing to contribute funds to improve the sewer system, should the housing project be approved and move forward.
Will the sewer be enough? Some asked how the sewer system would handle the development.
Can we afford not to do this? Local resident Dan Rivet, Jr., a principal in Old Forge Woodlands, LLC, which is selling the property on North Street for $849,000 to People First, pointed out that the community has 300 fewer people than it had in 2010 and younger people continue to leave because they can’t afford to live in the community.
“Which is why we accepted an offer from People First,” Rivet said. “Since then, I’ve been contacted by three parties offering anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 more for the property and they definitely weren’t going to build housing for young families, workers and so on. Local restaurants and businesses have to cut hours [due to lack of workers.] Our school has half the population it used to…I want to see a community like what I grew up in, one that is enlivened.”
Next steps: Calli said People First was going to follow up on two suggestions made during the afternoon session of the public hearings, (1) surveying all existing businesses to understand the dynamics of their needs, and (2) surveying people who may be eligible to occupy these units to understand the level of need and the level of demand. People First had relied on empirical data so far in the planning stages, according to Calli. Trainor has been enlisted to take the lead on creating these surveys, according to Calli.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t want us or don’t want this, we respect that,” Calli said. “We are trying to be part of the solution.”