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Renewal on the horizon

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Syracuse developer Steven F. Aiello’s announcement over the weekend that he had successfully gained control of the defunct Mercy Hospital and its land puts Watertown and Jefferson County at the cusp of an effort to revitalize downtown, an effort that began about 50 years ago with urban renewal.

The first hopeful days of urban renewal in the late 1950s saw the destruction of almost all the commercial buildings on Arsenal and Court streets. Since then, downtown has seen a series of depressing events and successful projects.

As major retailers such as Sears, Penney’s and Bonton (the successor to Howland’s) abandoned the city’s core for the Mall or declared bankruptcy like Woolworth’s, Public Square kept trying to find a new direction. Neighbors of Watertown revitalized the Burdick Block, the old YWCA and the Brighton Hotel, which rose above the former Empsall’s department store.

All of these efforts demonstrated halting progress as either government worked its way to invest tax dollars in new facilities, or nonprofits raised money to build or private investors put together financing to support their projects.

Mr. Aiello has managed the essential step in a project whose investment dwarfs all others on the Square and downtown: His company owns the land. COR Development bought General Electric Capital’s mortgage, which had financed the Mercy complex for MGNH Inc., the bankrupt nursing home operator from Lake Katrine owned by the late Anthony Salerno. Once COR owned the mortgage, it negotiated an acceptance of the deed on the property in lieu of foreclosure, eliminating months of court actions to gain site control.

Now the planning begins. The early vision for the project was published Sunday in The Times. Demolition should follow in the fall, ridding the block of a hodge-podge of mismatched, ancient and poorly maintained buildings, allowing the land to be returned to positive community use. Mercy Hospital for generations provided medical care and hundreds of satisfying jobs.

However, as the health care delivery system changed, Mercy became an anachronism. Now the vision of the Sisters of Mercy to use that land for the public benefit comes to life again.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration deserve credit for making this project possible. He has never hesitated in his commitment to Watertown and Jefferson County to accommodate the growing demand for housing driven by the vitality of Fort Drum and the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. This project makes a contribution toward that goal and will transform a struggling city center.

As the planning proceeds, the excited leaders of City Hall can prove to their constituents that they are dedicated to expediting completion of the vision. The city will be a major player in upgrading infrastructure, controlling traffic, providing a secure construction site, and fairly and consistently taxing the development. Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham has been an important advocate for the project and made an eloquent case for it at the North Country Regional Economic Development Council meeting Tuesday in Malone.

The governor and Mr. Aiello have introduced expertise to the community to execute an exciting vision of the core of a small city center. Watertown will be the envy of other cities and will be a prescription for renewal across Upstate New York.

The lesson is fairly simple. First-class developers who make reasonable, logical cases to a governor who listens and is committed to upstate revitalization will make a difference in the quality of life.

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