The Man Behind Burlington's Renaissance Has Some Advice For New York's North Country

Dec 27, 2016

In every corner of the North Country in upstate New York, there are towns with persistent questions about economic development: How to fill empty storefronts? How to create a new generation of entrepreneurs? Longtime Burlington developer Bruce Seifer thinks he has the answers.

Seifer was in charge of economic development in Burlington in the 1980s, back when the city was rusty and crumbling and asking the same questions. Now, Burlington is booming, and widely seen as one of the most attractive places to live in the country.

If you live in northern New York, the natural reaction might be, "Yeah, sure, Vermont." Vermont has quaint towns. It has the same number of U.S. Senators representing its interests as New York, but about 3 percent of the population. Burlington always boasted a gorgeous view (of New York's mountains, it should be noted), and a huge, vibrant college community. Surely it was primed for a renaissance from the start. Right?

But what about struggling North Country cities? What can Burlington’s success teach us here? So one day I met Bruce Seifer in Public Square, in the heart of downtown the heart of downtown Watertown, New York.

A diagnosis for sparking business from a guy who's been there

No sooner had he stepped out of his car than Seifer starting kicking the tires on the city's assets. He noted the streets and sidewalks were recently re-paved and fixed up. "The infrastructure is here," he noted approvingly, and pointed to the green space in the middle of the traffic circle. "Park’s beautiful."

But then he scanned the storefronts. The sidewalk’s pretty much empty, except for one guy sitting on a bench watching traffic.

"What I see now are ‘for lease’ signs, a second hand store, and vacancies ... and beautiful buildings," Seifer diagnosed. "But what they need are entrepreneurs who have done their planning to find ways to make money to populate these businesses. To me, looking at what we’ve done in Burlington, it’s definitely feasible."

"Our strategy was to help locally-owned companies in our community and try to recycle our resources in the community. I would go to people and ask them, 'I'm from the government. How can I help?'" — Bruce Seifer, longtime Burlington developer

We ducked into the Crystal Restaurant, one of Public Square’s few businesses to survive through the years, and take a table to discuss how he helped spark Burlington's renaissance, and what it might teach people wanting to do the same in northern New York.

Seifer has the slightly hurried look of someone always checking in on things – hair tousled, button-down a little ruffled.

"Our strategy was to help locally owned companies in our community and try to recycle our resources in the community. I would go to people and ask them, 'I’m from the government. How can I help?'"

A preacher for sustainable downtown revival

It was the 1980s. Bernie Sanders was Burlington's mayor. Bruce Seifer signed on as Sanders' assistant director at the Community and Economic Development Office. At the time, Burlington's revival had already begun with the conversion of Church Street into a pedestrian mall, but much of the city remained a dump, like the rest of the cities of the Rust Belt.

"We had oil tanks and we had old abandoned rail cars and we had abandoned vehicles," recalled Brian Pine, who was a youth employment advocate back then. He eventually became the city’s longtime housing director.

Pine remembered a day in November 1996 when Bruce Seifer summoned officials to the worst of it, the polluted wasteland of the Burlington waterfront, to talk about brownfield redevelopment. Then-Governor Howard Dean was there. Then-Senator Jim Jeffords was there. Seifer climbed up on a rock and addressed the crowd.

"He was standing on this big boulder," Pine remembered. "He had his arms outstretched. It looked like he was preaching. And he was! He was preaching about the idea that ‘We can change this. We’re changing it. You can go home and do this.’"

In 1996, Bruce Seifer spoke to Vermont dignitaries including then-Governor Howard Dean and then-Senator Jim Jeffords at the post-industrial Burlington waterfront, conjuring in their minds what could be.
Credit Courtesy Glenn Russell / Burlington Free Press

Burlington did it. The waterfront today bustles with museums and restaurants and walking trails. Seifer spearheaded a project to get a new supermarket — City Market — built downtown at a time when everyone was relocating to the suburbs. He led an effort to turn South End industrial warehouses into a thriving arts community.

Make it a thing and brand it

Seifer said his secret sauce is to make economic development fun.

"Business can be hard. And I think it should be fun." In Seifer’s world, that means make up things to do, and give them a cool name. Pop-up concerts in vacant storefronts. Fashion shows in empty warehouses. Anything to make downtown seem like the place to be.

He points to initiatives and events like The Strolling of the Heifers in Brattleboro and one he founded called the South End Art Hop.

"Our hope was to let people know there were things going on in the community," Seifer said. "We tried to find ways to have people have a good time, so people would want to go and put their time, money, and effort into something."

"We tried to find ways to have people have a good time, so people would want to go and put their time, money, and effort into something." — Bruce Seifer

After more than two decades as Burlington's economic developer, Seifer doesn’t want these tactics relegated to “the dustbin of history,” as he put it. "I really enjoyed what I did. It’s hard work, but I wanted to share our successes, and I wanted to help others succeed."

So Seifer co-wrote a book distilling his ideas called Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy. Seifer said it contains a couple hundred initiatives other communities can implement in their own towns, "and I’d say 75 percent of them are a lot of fun. We created all kinds of events and organizations where people got to know one another, they got to commune, become friends, do business with one another, and create opportunities that didn’t exist before."

'It's a little more difficult to get things done here in New York'

After Seifer and I finish lunch at the Crystal, we headed to a meeting we set up with Watertown’s economic developers. During our interview, Seifer sounded soft-spoken, a little formal and guarded. But off mic, especially when chatting with his cohort, he was charming. He joked; he swore; he laughed.

Seifer talked shop with Donald Rutherford, the city of Watertown's lead economic developer, and David Zembiec, deputy CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development — strategic plans, zoning boards, revolving loan funds, the nuts and bolts of economic development. Fun aside, Seifer told me several times strategic plans and sound business plans are crucial to creating business.

Afterwards, Rutherford looked like a guy who found a like-mind in Seifer, someone who gets what he’s going through. But he also looked a little worn down. Watertown isn’t Burlington.

"Politics is different in New York than it is in Vermont," Rutherford explained. "It’s a little more difficult here in New York to get some of the things done that Bruce has talked about."

"Politics is different in New York than it is in Vermont. It's a little more difficult here." — Donald Rutherford, Watertown's lead economic developer

More red tape. Less attention from influential state leaders. Rutherford and his team put together an exciting proposal for one of those big $10 million state grants for city projects, but they didn’t get it. "Now what is needed is we need to identify, based on factual analytical data, what would work downtown," said Rutherford.

Watertown is making some progress. A craft beer and tapas restaurant is going in next to the Crystal. A kids' indoor playground opened around the corner. The Old Woolworth and Lincoln buildings are being rehabbed. The city recently got a $50,000 state grant to create a strategic plan for revitalizing downtown.

Watertown Winery Day?

I walked Seifer back to his car on Public Square. "I would approach it by talking to all the property owners one by one and ask them, 'What’s holding them back, what do they need?'" he summarized. "Each building probably has its own issue. So you have to find out what their obstacles to succeed are, and then my job was to solve those obstacles."

Then Seifer’s face lit up. He recalled seeing wineries nearby on his drive. "You could have 'Watertown Winery Day' here in the Square," he exclaimed. "People and families having fun on the lawn. A pop-up wine shop in each vacant store."

Seifer took one last look around, and said, "Yeah, we could do something here."

David Sommerstein is a reporter and assistant news director for North Country Public Radio, where this story originally aired.