Joseph DeStefano, the mayor of Middletown in upstate New York, gave an interview with Vision Times on Nov. 14 to discuss various strategies the city has implemented to grow and support local businesses in the city’s downtown core and beyond.
“We’ve transitioned,” DeStefano said, noting that “Middletown is an old manufacturing railroad town, going back 100 years.”
DeStefano , 64, was first elected to Middletown’s City Council in 1983, becoming the city’s youngest elected official at the age of 25. After serving in this capacity for several years he was then elected mayor, a position he has held since 1993.
Having personally been directly involved in different businesses in Middletown in the 80s and 90s, DeStefano said that he developed an idea of where he thought the city should be going and that he “wasn’t trying to recreate what we had in the past” but was “trying to develop a vision for going forward.”
He believed that a focus on arts, education, and cultural issues was the direction that the city had to take in order to thrive. Part of this plan was revitalizing the downtown core. He admitted that retail was not coming back in any big way to the city’s downtown but that there were tremendous opportunities for businesses of other sorts to thrive.
“We wanted to develop a plan downtown that put feet on the street,” he said ,while also encouraging people to live, work and play in the city’s downtown core. He said that to accomplish this, the city changed the zoning in the area to prohibit first floor residential spaces and to encourage upper floor residential spaces allowing business to populate the first floor, thus invigorating the city. “It’s working,” he said.
“The restaurants started opening, people are living down here, they’re working down here. We created that opportunity,” he added.
DeStefano says that the city has had “a lot of success with grant seeking,” referring to a $10-million award from the state that he said the city was able to leverage several times.
“We didn’t stop at that $10 million. We leveraged that $10 million and we accessed other, multi-millions of dollars in grants and that’s what you are seeing now,” he said.
A great example of this money put to work is the city’s sidewalk renovation program, which DeStefano says will be complete in April or May next year.
He said the city is working diligently to become compliant with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). “We are making every traffic signal in the city, every intersection ADA compliant. We’re trying to make it more walkable, bikeable,” he said.
The city of Middletown is a mere five square miles in size and home to around 30,000 people with a “tremendous amount of assets,” DeStefano said, referring to educational facilities like Fei Tian and Touro Colleges. He said because these educational institutions decided to establish operations in the city that it “gave a lot of credibility to our plan of arts and education and culture.”
He said that these establishments “have been a big part of the future of our growth here,” and that ultimately the city wants to support the local economy with a focus on “Ma and Pa shops.”
“The idea is to create a local economy where people are spending money and enjoying themselves,” somewhere “where they feel safe,” he said.
“We are like a neighborhood in a big city. It’s working for us,” he added.
- New York Judge Rules Fired Unvaccinated City Employees May Return to Work, Entitled to Back Pay
- Tent Shelter for Hundreds of Migrant Men Opens in New York City
- Amazon Workers in New York Reject Union in Blow to Organizing Effort
Retail a thing of the past
“While retail, on a small level, still works” in the city’s downtown core, DeStefano said that the era of large retail shops in the core of the city has passed.
He said large retailers like Sears can no longer succeed in the core due to changing consumer habits, but that small, locally owned shops have the opportunity to establish themselves and thrive.
“Our target is not to get a large retailer. Our target is to get the Ma & Pa shops. We prefer Dayes Coffee to Starbucks,” he said, naming a new coffee shop that opened on North St.
“We see the kids hanging out, hanging out doing their work from Touro College. It’s impressive and that’s what we are trying to create. It’s a different vibe than say a mall.”
Middletown is positioned to support “all types of development” in different parts of the city, he said, with areas zoned for commercial and industrial business. He said that a large plastics company has recently decided to relocate to Middletown from Long Island. “So there are commercial opportunities, but our center core is the Ma and Pa core, in the downtown area.”
He said the city can assist in the facilitation of low interest loans for small businesses to establish a presence in Middletown.
“We have a low interest loan here for the purchase of equipment. If a restaurant is coming in and needs $25,000 worth of equipment, we can do a loan for that. It’s low-interest and goes through our economic development department,” he said, adding that, “They are not hard to get,” as long as the person is creditworthy.
“We are not allowed to give state, city money as an incentive but we can assist in other ways like infrastructure improvements. There are things that we can do in order to make projects work and we have been doing that right along,” he said.