Its been nearly 30 years since the city of Watertown has seen so much growth.
In the next couple of years, downtown Watertown will make the biggest changes in decades.
It started in December, when work on two major projects began.
COR Development Co., Fayetteville, will demolish the former Mercy Hospital and turn the site into some 40,000 square feet of retail and office space, with between 160 and 200 rental housing units on the upper floors. The $65 million to $70 million investment is slated for completion in two to four years.
At one of the downtown business districts most important properties, work continues on rehabilitating the long vacant Woolworth Building on Public Square into another 50 upper-floor apartments with commercial space on the ground floor.
Kenneth A. Mix, Watertowns planning and community development coordinator, said he cannot wait to see the two major projects completed.
Woolworth and Mercy are incredibly significant real estate projects for downtown, Mr. Mix said. At full occupancy, they will generate much activity that will contribute a great deal to its revitalization.
The downtown renaissance got a kick-start about 18 months ago when local investor Brian H. Murray purchased and renovated a nearly forgotten mall underneath the former Stream Global Services call center on Arsenal Street. Mr. Murray was able to lure a series of businesses filling the once-idle storefronts.
Five additional primary construction projects downtown and other smaller projects also are in the planning stages or about to get off the ground. They, too, feature a mixture of rental housing and commercial space.
The historic Masonic Temple on Washington Street, the redevelopment of Empsall Plaza on Court Street, renovation of the Lincoln Building into 36 apartments and revamping the 73 apartments in the problem-plagued Solar Building, 200-212 Franklin St., all will add to the changes occurring downtown.
If all are completed, it will exceed $100 million in investment in the core of the city, the biggest influx of money since the 1980s, business and community leaders said. It should generate hundreds of construction jobs and an unspecified number of retail, service-related and office jobs after all of the projects are completed.
But COR President Steven F. Aiello said the renaissance is part of a trend in urban areas throughout the country. Its the opposite of suburban sprawl that occurred for decades people want to move back to urban centers, Mr. Aiello said.
Its now about urban redevelopment, he said.
COR ventured into the Watertown area several years ago, spending millions to develop the Towne Center shopping complex on outer Arsenal Street. It includes Target and Kohls department stores, as well as the 296-unit Beaver Meadow Apartments behind the shopping center on Route 3 in the town of Watertown.
Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp, known as the Watertown Trust, said that the Woolworth project was in the works for years. It took a change in developers, from Long Islands Michael A. Treanor to partners David J. Gallo and Erich H. Seber, to turn the project around.
And the former Mercy Hospital, a mammoth complex of old buildings, could have sat there for years if it werent for COR Developments decision to step in and take control of the property. Mr. Rutherford said.
Its a variety of things coming together, Mr. Rutherford said.
Much of Watertowns successes also can be attributed to its proximity to Fort Drum, he said. Thats why the big-box retailers and national food chains opened up shop along Arsenal Street during the mid- to late-1990s, the last time Watertown went through similar growth, said David J. Zembiec, deputy CEO of the Jefferson County Local Development Corp.
The need for more housing for Fort Drum soldiers has prompted much of the construction boom, Mr. Zembiec said.
Besides CORs Route 3 project, another developer, Morgan Management, Pittsford, began building 394 units off County Route 202 and intends to complete the sprawling development, called the Preserve at Autumn Ridge, over three phases during the next few years, he noted.
And there is other growth occurring outside of the city, in other municipalities in Jefferson County, Mr. Zembiec said.
In downtown Clayton, the Buffalo-based Krog Corp. and Hart Hotels are aiming to open a 105-room, full-service boutique hotel and conference center this summer. The Clayton Local Development Corp. helped launch the $22.5 million investment, which had a June ground-breaking.
Purcell Construction, Watertown, is behind two large projects: a planned 88-acre industrial park on outer Bradley Street that could host as many as 20 businesses, and a proposed 10-building business park on 30 acres off outer Washington Street in front of Summit Wood apartments. Both projects are in the early stages of planning.
Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency officials also are involved in creating a corporate park at the Watertown International Airport, Mr. Zembiec said. A local cargo shipping company has expressed interested in becoming the corporate parks first tenant. If it ends up moving next to the airport runway, plans to open the corporate park could move quickly, county officials have said.
The airport also has been a crucial economic development tool for the county, Mr. Zembiec said. Corporate officials know they can rely on flights at the airport for travel, he said. A few weeks ago, US Airways announced that its US Airways Express will start taking over flights at the airport, twice daily, seven days a week, in May. Debate has since centered on how that change will impact travel for especially business people who will use it.
While it may not seem like it, Mr. Zembiec said, the countys manufacturing and corporate job base has improved, attributing it to workers obtaining training and skills they need.
One of the countys largest employers, Stream Global Services, now Convergys Corp., is increasing its workforce from about 700 employees to 1,000 as the result of a $4.2 million upgrade at its call center on Arsenal Street, he noted.
Unfortunately, any job gains have been offset by losses in the governmental and education fields, Mr. Zembiec said.