Binghamton looks to many visitors like any other post-industrial city in the Northeast: The historic buildings are in disrepair, and the rundown strip malls hide years of slow progress towards a revitalized Binghamton.
For years, the strategy for rebirth has been to perk up a storefront here, tear down a building there.
That's in evidence at the "Southside Commons," a concrete open space across the river and Route 434 from Binghamton's city center. The space offers a raised area where bands can play in the summer, and a few tables and chairs scattered around the single lot wedged between two buildings.
It doesn't look like much, but a significant amount of work went into making it happen.
A new downtown
"If you remember what it was before - it was a dirt lot. A lot of garbage back there, we cleaned it up and now it's a place where we can be proud of, a great addition to the South Bridge business district," said Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan, during a ribbon cutting in October.
Sean Massey was the councilman for this part of the city when the project was completed. He says the park is tied to the new student housing coming downtown. Scheduled to open in August, the Twin River Commons will bring hundreds of Binghamton University students into the area.
"So now what we have is a concentrated destination, a place with businesses, with public space, with maybe some entertainment and recreational activities that are going on that will now be available to this new market that is moving downtown," said Massey
The student housing is the catalyst for a transformation, says city director of economic development, Merry Harris.
"It won't be just kind of the nine-to-five scene that it is right now - you know, people come in, they go to lunch, they do that and then pretty much go home at night," she says.
It could be starting to click: Already, new brewpubs are coming downtown. Slow progress is being made on new lofts in the area's historic buildings. The mayor's office created a commission dedicated to fostering the growth.
But Harris, who's the head of that commission, says transformation has been harder to bring to the city as a whole as it tries to overcome its industrial past.
"Piecemeal so far"
Democracy is partly to blame for the slow progress. As politicians enter and leave office, redevelopment priorities change.
That's led to a scattershot approach to development, according to Mayor Matt Ryan.
"It is piecemeal so far, it's kind of filling in so if you're just living here you might see this place, that place," says Ryan.
Ryan says that the bigger planning, the one that covers the next decade or two, is also in the works. In November, the city won a $500,000 federal grant, part of the Community Challenge Grant Program.
The money will go toward a rewrite of the city's comprehensive plan, new zoning for the Main Street-Court Street corridor, and a few local development projects.
Binghamton city planner Tarik Abdelazim says the grant gives officials the luxury to think beyond the short-term projects that politicians are forced to work on.
"We're responsible for looking out 20 or 30 years, not on a political timeline but on a community development timeline."
Developing the city's new plan will take about two years and, once completed, it will guide all future projects in the city.