Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of talks with City Manager Rachael Tabelski regarding updates on various city initiatives.
It was one thing to be working when COVID-19 hit, and one had to figure out a system for being remote at home. But for City Manager Rachael Tabelski, she was hired for the assistant manager and city manager positions during the pandemic, which meant not having all of the regular in-person meetings with key professionals. She recently attended her first NewYork Conference of Mayors meeting, live and in person.
“Overall, it was very good and very informative. It was nice to actually meet other managers around the state, and talk to them about what they have going on in their community, ” she said during an interview with The Batavian. “So it was really, really, for me, extremely helpful, because for two and a half years, I really couldn’t meet anybody out there.”
The Batavian talked with Tabelski for updates on city projects, vacancies and future insights. Her assistant manager position has been open for a few weeks now, and resumes have been coming in, she said.
“I think it's great to see so many folks interested in the position and in the job and how it's going to move forward,” she said. "And I sincerely thank The Batavian and your articles, because I think that's helpful for candidates to see the news of what's going on in the community, and thoughts and goals and vision I have for that job. So I think that's really neat. And I think the news outlets in Batavia, actually, knowingly or unknowingly, play a big role in how we can recruit for qualified candidates both at city and county levels of government.
“Because people who read the stories that you write about what is going on in the community, what positive changes we may be making, what problems and issues we're trying to tackle. They read all that before they come and apply for a very high-level job like assistant city manager,” she said. “And so credit to our residents and our news agencies for showing the best side of Batavia out there that there is a lot of progress going on. There's a lot of investment and that government teams are a place people would want to come work for, especially here in the city.”
Batavia’s driving force …
“I think it's great that there's a lot of positive momentum in our community surrounding the downtown development projects. The hospital being under Rochester Regional Health, their new buildings, their new offerings for health care here, I think, is huge,” she said. “I think the school district plays into the idea of locating somewhere as well. If you were coming from out of the region to locate here, you'd be looking at the school district, we'd be looking at the prospects for the future, or is it a growing city? Did we have good numbers on the last census track? Do we have programs aligned to keep people here and in their homes? Or to help people qualify to buy homes? Do we have a highly educated population? You know, what percentage do we have graduating high school and college? All those factors play into any job seeker when they're looking for a new opportunity.”
At first blush, it certainly seems as though the city is displaying at least some of those characteristics. Batavia City Schools placed in the top half of all districts across the country in the latest U.S. News & World Report. A local realtor is conducting a workshop next month to assist prospective homeowners with the process. Projects are in various stages of completion to provide new, affordable housing, restaurants, jobs and a second brewery.
Though there also seem to be gaps, by city and county officials’ own admission. There is no large venue to serve as event space; JC Penney’s, a dependable staple and anchor for the former mall, has left; and there are sections of black space within empty buildings where the lights have been turned out.
Housing needs -- from permanent to temporary ...
An upside is the impending Ellicott Station, with expected completion to be in the summer of 2023. Geared towards lower-income folks, the complex should serve the needs of “certain service sectors” and seniors, Tabelski said, with “really nice housing” and an opportunity for the occupants to hang onto some of what they earn or receive from Social Security.
Housing developers conducted a market housing study and identified a price point for housing in this area, she said. That doesn’t mean Batavia is sufficient without the higher, market-rate housing developments, she said.
“So I think sure, if they've proven there's a need for it, and they're going to rent those all out, then there absolutely is a need for high-quality rentals at those certain price points. I also think there's still a big need for market-rate housing. The question is, can a developer come in and get a return on their investment on a building that works for them at the market rates?” she said. “And I think someday, yes, they will be able to. In the COVID building season, it might be a little more difficult.”
As for empty buildings — the former JC Penney, for example — what would serve the city best? Tabelski referred to a report from 2010 that stated there wasn’t a market for a boutique hotel downtown, and officials have heeded that advice up to now.
“I absolutely disagree with that statement. I think with all of the investment going on with the YMCA and the different offerings, and the theater, with the hockey rink, that there is a need, and a small boutique-style hotel or micro-hotel could be very successful in our downtown,” she said. “I think it's one of the next steps in our development process. So again, the exact people that live here and they spend money in retail restaurants, then they have family come in to visit, and now there's a hotel in the downtown. And not to even forget our international students from GCC, they may have friends and family that fly in to see them. Certainly, they could stay at the other hotel offerings that are there, but this might be an opportunity to bring them more into our downtown and more into an urban atmosphere than on the outskirts.”
A wedding (or similarly large special event) party house would also be very successful, she said. Or perhaps both of those ideas.
“In our downtown, we've talked about it for a long time, it would pair nicely with a boutique hotel,” she said.
Another housing need, though, has more to do with longer-term, temporary situations. We are missing “the larger manufacturing corporations” in need of fully furnished lodgings for new employees in training, she said.
“For them to stay in, for maybe a three, four or five months period, which I consider a corporate housing-type market,” she said. “We talked about this when I was at the IDA, and now I continue to see it happening, that they'll need to go to the outer suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester to find something fully furnished, a corporate housing-type opportunity. So I think that's another opportunity the city has, to develop a unique piece of the market and have more people staying here. And when I say the city, I do mean the private sector, not the actual city of Batavia, just to be clear, where someone could make a return on their investment and have a product out there that supports the manufacturers and their employees that come over for kind of longer-term stays. There's a lot of positive opportunities even after we get all these DRI (Downtown Revitalization Initiative) projects done, there's going to be a lot more to continue to work on.”
Last word on the vacant Penney building was that a real estate developer from California purchased the property and is shopping it around to local developers. Meanwhile, designs are being made for the new police station, to be just across the street at another Alva Place and Bank Street parking lot.
Next up: The city manager discusses the police station, ice rink, shopping experiences
Top 2022 file photo: City Manager Rachael Tabelski gives an update during a City Council meeting, and Tabelski participates in the ceremonial groundbreaking shovel toss for Ellicott Station.