Investments in Downtown Middletown Pay Off for New Arrivals and Old
Garcia’s Supermarket carries a wide variety of produce favored by local residents, such as cactus, plantain, and chilis. One of two Latino-owned supermarkets in the city, Garcia’s runs a deli-style franchise in the store, Super Tortas, for Latino fast food.
Alvaro Garcia manages the store started by his father. The store began in a small storefront up the street. Today the supermarket’s façade is restored and is graced by a bright red logo. Aisles, spotlessly clean, carry every kind of food and necessities for the home. The North Street supermarket just completed a $553,000 expansion and renovation.
This is the kind of neighborhood business that Mayor Joseph DeStefano wants for his city. To attract more businesses like this, city officials strive to make neighborhoods safe, secure, and clean for residents. Two weekends ago, the city held its annual city clean-up as over 200 volunteers, including a great many children, picked up litter in town.
The mayor sees a prosperous economy and community improvement as a total package. “We believe the two are intertwined.” DeStefano says. “The community development part—you have to have a good housing stock, good strong neighborhoods.”
The Middletown Office of Economic and Community Development, managed by Maria Bruni, sees a strong community as its most powerful draw in attracting business. Her agency provides small business loans through a federal program.
Middletown often works with the Orange County Partnership and promises a fast approval process. “We like to incentivize people to look at Middletown as an option,” DeStefano says.
The city encourages business with tax incentives through their own Industrial Development Agency (IDA).
The IDA was key to the relocation of Touro College and Orange Regional Medical Center’s expansion. Touro College, working with both the city and state economic development council, received a $1 million grant to relocate.
The Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine took over a vacant 400,000 s.f. former hospital. DeStefano gave it new life. “Usually those buildings just go away. They stay vacant forever and then the city deals with them 20 years from now. We had to make the package attractive enough to the developer to make such a large investment—tens of millions of dollars in the project.”
The city also enjoys positive cash flow. “Prior to that we were getting zero in taxes. So, not only do we have a medical school and other uses going in there, we are now collecting taxes.”
The IDA gives the city flexibility, DeStefano says. Developers can save on sales and mortgage taxes and provides the necessary access to capital for a purchase and renovation. With a formerly vacant building now having a positive use, opportunities for bad uses decreases. “We find it to be a fantastic tool for us.”
Bring the Family Downtown
The mayor envisions the downtown as a place for the community to gather. “Downtown’s a place where you can go to a movie, have dinner, get your hair done, you can get your nails done, get a cappuccino.”
The city encourages what the mayor calls “niche shops” for the younger generation.
The city wants residents of all income levels to enjoy what the city has to offer. “Our goal is to make it comfortable for people to live and work. It’s not just working. We’re getting a lot of upper-floor residential development. It’s not your typical upstate New York small town upper floor. “
The performing arts play a big role in this economic plan. The city took over the 85-year-old Paramount Theatre in 1996. DeStefano sees it in terms of economic impact. “When there is something going on at the Paramount Theatre, every restaurant downtown is packed.”
Bruni noted that “it’s basically our economic engine in the downtown.”
The city invests in an extensive park system. Not only does it provide a place to relax with the family but impacts crime rates. Places for sports and recreation are key to the city’s revitalization. The city is developing an outdoor skate park and a developer is repurposing a building nearby for an indoor soccer facility.
To make neighborhoods safe for families, foot patrols were instituted for police for part of their shifts. “In each shift, a police officer is required to walk an hour in a neighborhood to become acquainted with people. It’s had such a positive effect because it brings the policeman to the people in a non-adversarial way and they get to know the people. They get to know the neighborhood a lot better than just riding by.”
City of Immigrants
In a reflection of the national character, Middletown has always been a city of immigrants. The Irish were first with the arrival of the railroad, followed by Italians, and now an influx of Latinos.
“That’s the beauty of Middletown: the diversity of the community, ethnically, racially, and financially. Probably the fastest growing sector of small business is the Latino community,” DeStefano says.
The mayor wants to change common misperceptions about a city with a demographic of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and some poor. “We have a soup kitchen downtown. We have a warming station downtown in the wintertime. We are a very benevolent community.”
DeStefano would like more small businesses in the downtown area. By providing safety and security, he believe more neighborhood business, like Garcia’s Supermarket, will come in.
“Middletown has always been an immigrant city. Now it’s the Latino community. Their presence is very much welcome in the community and also it’s the driving force to revitalization.”