WATERTOWN Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy recalled coming here a year ago to hear city officials and business leaders lobby for state support of the former Mercy Hospitals redevelopment.
He returned to Watertown on Monday to kick off the demolition of the mammoth complex as work began to tear down the first building.
Syracuse-area based COR Development Co. is investing $70 million to transform the site into 40,000 square feet of retail and office space and 160 to 200 apartments.
Mr. Duffy joined 80 local leaders in a ceremony across from the main entrance on Stone Street. About a dozen former employees also came to hear how the site of the former health care center where many local people were born and treated, and where many died will be transformed.
It was a bittersweet occasion for some. Gloria J. Cheney, asked for a keepsake from the building where she worked as a housekeeper for 33 years until she retired in 2008. James W. Wright, CEO of the Development Authority of the North Country, arranged for a COR official to retrieve the 18-inch letter G from the old Genesis sign and give it to her because thats her nickname, she explained.
Mrs. Cheney was there to honor her mother, Eva B. Richards, who died in the nursing home two years ago at age 99.
Maybe her spirit will leave there now, she said.
Cecelia M. Fleming recalled working there a nursing aid for 23 years, and her daughter volunteered there as a teenager.
Its very sad, she said of the demolition. It was my home away from home. But I welcome it because its going to mean jobs.
They watched a single construction worker perched in a cherry picker carefully remove a temporary Mercy Care of Northern New York sign that hung for years. It exposed the sign beneath for Genesis HealthCare of New York, which took over Mercy Hospital when it entered bankruptcy about 15 years ago.
The former Madonna building, a home for senior citizens, will be the first structure to be demolished over the next seven months. It will take about another 18 months before the site is redeveloped.
Because so many local lives have been touched by the health care facility over the years, COR President Steven F. Aiello announced Monday that part of the site will be set aside as a small reflection park to remember the old hospital. Bricks and other items will be used to develop the park, he said.
Crediting the public-private partnership that made the project a reality, Mr. Duffy applauded COR for stepping up for the community and transforming a block-long vacant eyesore into a place where people can live and work.
The former mayor of Rochester, Mr. Duffy said he knows how projects like this can revitalize a city. Its going to be developed right, going to be developed well, he told reporters.
The project will create 450 construction jobs and about 250 permanent jobs once the site has been redeveloped, Mr. Aiello said. Space on the buildings ground floors likely will include a mix of businesses. Plans call for medical and office spaces along with some small restaurants and retailers.
They wont compete directly with others in the central downtown district, Mr. Aiello said.
Its not an exaggeration, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said. This is a transformational project for downtown.
About 20 percent of the total housing units likely will be affordable rental space designated for low-income tenants. The rest will be market-rate units. While demolition proceeds, COR plans to start the site plan review process to have blueprints approved for its four-building complex by the city Planning Board later this year, Mr. Aiello said.
A long-necked excavator with a demolition grapple took the first whacks at the old hospital laundry room on the other side of the building Monday.
Watching from behind a chain-link fence, Ruby Stevens took photos with her phone. It took just a moment for the excavator to destroy doors and windows. The demolition saddened her.
I was born in this hospital, she said. All my sisters and brothers were born in this hospital. My daughter and my granddaughter were born there.
Video of the destruction can be seen at http://wdt.me/mercy-destruction.