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Student housing plan mostly criticized at public hearing

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POTSDAM — A proposal by Affinity Potsdam Cottages to build up to 100 units of student housing remains a possibility even though a public hearing Thursday generated more opposition than support among about 35 participants.

“I don’t think development at any cost is a good thing,” said Judith R. Rich, a Town Council member who earlier voted against a payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreement for the project. “I think we’re being taken for a ride on this.”

P. Jeffrey Birtch, chief executive officer at Affinity Realty, Buffalo, said he will meet with the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency to discuss what people had to say and to review a decision by the Potsdam village Board of Trustees in favor of the PILOT, and a negative vote on the tax break plan by the town. Mr. Birtch said he wants to see how the Potsdam Central School Board will vote.

The proposed PILOT will stay the same, he said.

“I think we’re done,” he said. “We’re as far as we’re going to go.”

Under the deal, Affinity would pay 65 percent of the assessed value of completed buildings, set at a total of $5.5 million, for five years. After that, the percentage would increase by 5 percent annually until full taxes were paid.

The PILOT took the brunt of the heat at the hearing.

Landlord William P. Dailey said he was sick of using government assistance to subsidize private enterprise.

“I just can’t stomach it anymore,” he said. “I want to welcome you here on a more equitable basis.”

Other business executives said government help is sometimes necessary.

Mark Dzwonczyk, CEO of Nicholville Telephone Co., the parent company of Slic Network Solutions, said more than $30 million has come from government sources to increase broadband in the north country and expand employment at his firm from 24 to 49 people.

Potsdam has granted PILOTs in the past, including for Swan Landing and the Clarkson Inn, said Planning and Development Director Frederick J. Hanss.

However, the fairness of the PILOT is at issue, said James M. Snell, because construction costs are estimated at $20 million while the assessment would be set at $5.5 million.

“Sixty-five percent on $20 million, great, no problem,” he said.

The Affinity project would create 25 construction jobs over two years and six permanent jobs afterward, IDA member Ernest J. LaBaff said.

“This is a college town. This housing is going to help the students go to these colleges. If that’s bad, I don’t understand that,” he said. “You are going to get taxes. You are going to get something out of this.”

Word around Potsdam is that approval by the village and rejection by the town is politics as usual, Mr. LaBaff said.

“As soon as the village voted yes, the town voted no,” he said.

The IDA does not represent him, landlord Michael D. Greer said.

“The IDA works for people who already have money,” he said. “This project’s not going to create jobs.”

Affinity, the owner of St. Lawrence Apartments, met with SUNY Potsdam officials and did a marketing study of the need for the housing, Mr. Birtch said.

However, landlord Lawrence McGory said the school’s increase in students will not be sustainable if it does not add courses and faculty.

“There’s going to be empty buildings somewhere,” he said. “I think the net job gain is probably zero. Building is not economic development. It’s got to make sense.”

SUNY Potsdam spokeswoman Alexandra M. Jacobs, who was not at the meeting, said the school wanted to remain neutral.

“We don’t take a position on a private project like that,” she said.

The project will generate more than $200,000 annually in taxes by the sixth year, Mr. Birtch said.

“Are you being shortchanged?” he said. “That’s for you to decide.”

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