A Peek Behind the Curtain

You may have noticed a bunch of acronyms appearing in community development conversations lately, like URI (Upstate Revitalization Initiative), PRI (Poverty Reduction Initiative), and DSRIP (Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment.) These programs are pumping a lot of money into the Southern Tier to jump-start economic growth in an area that has been struggling for decades.

To those not intimately familiar with the levels of state and local government involved, I can imagine the whole thing seems like a mystery. One day you open the newspaper (or more likely, Facebook) and see a headline reading “Elmira receives $1 million to fight poverty” or “$55 million heading to St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell.” Though it looks like these things just happen, the truth is far more complicated. And dare I say… interesting?

I had the pleasure this week of seeing one of these decision-making processes from the front row.

A few months ago, the Governor invited communities to apply for another one of those pesky three-letter-programs: DRI. This one stands for Downtown Revitalization Iniative. The winning city will receive $10 million for projects to bring a struggling downtown back to life.

The DRI Team! Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

The DRI Team!
Left to right: Jennifer Miller, Randi Hewit, Dan Mandell, Andrea Ogunwumi, and James Gensel

Elmira’s team of planning professionals (ranging from city community development staffers to civil engineers) sprang to life and created a plan called Refresh Elmira. In addition to identifying 19 properties ready for mixed-use redevelopment, they built improved wi-fi, streetscapes, parking garage experiences, and a well-planned walkable corridor linking Elmira College to the river into a thoughtful strategy intended to serve the already 8000+ downtown residents and 1000 more on the way.

It took at least a dozen people nearly 100 hours to put this plan on paper. That’s the kind of work that is never celebrated. Some crazy number of meetings, emails, and google docs later, Elmira was invited to the final step of the selection process: a seven minute presentation of the plan.

It turns out several of the people that would make the most sense to present this work were not allowed to do so according to the rules of the competition. So the team needed to find someone knowledgeable enough about the various pieces of the plan to understand the details, but independent enough not to represent a huge conflict-of-interest.

With the clock ticking, the team reached out to the person they deemed most likely to ask a group of strangers for millions of dollars without hesitation: me. In a day that felt almost like I was starring in a legal thriller, I had to shrink hundreds of hours of planning into seven minutes – with only 24 hours until it was go-time. Thanks to that same team of planners, I had a great PowerPoint deck to cue me as I rehearsed (over and over again) my talk down to a crisp 6 minutes and 48 seconds. 

We were allowed four experts in the room to answer questions for no more than ten minutes following the presentation, so the five of us met at City Hall before travelling together to Binghamton University. The conversation flowed as we drove, sometimes diving deep into the plan, and other times changing the subject to give our minds a rest. We arrived an hour and 15 minutes early to make sure we had time to check the slides on the big screen, and for me to get comfortable with the sound system and podium before the committee arrived, at which time we were sent to a holding room down the hall.

For an hour we waited for our chance to make our pitch. We snacked a little and considered all the possible questions that could come from the folks about to vote on our plan’s fate. I went quiet as I mentally ran through those seven minutes over and over again.

Then it was time. We were brought into the room. Everything was exactly as we had prepared: the slides looked great, the microphone was positioned exactly to my height, and the podium was at the angle I needed to see my audience and the screen simultaneously. With every hair in place and freshly applied lipstick, I walked to the front of the room in my favorite heels and go-to “I mean business” black dress to convince this group of people that Elmira is the best possible place to invest $10 million in downtown revitalization.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next 17 minutes, but we all feel like it went really well. Afterward, there were lots of hugs and high fives in the hallway. We giggled with the rush of adrenaline that follows every great public speaking moment and is every bit as intoxicating as a runners’ high.

Perhaps you are wondering if we won the $10 million? So are we! We won’t know until the Governor’s office makes an announcement sometime in the next week or two. But the next time you see a headline along the lines of “Elmira secures funding for downtown revitalization,” you’ll have a better idea of what happened along the way. I can assure you the-story-behind-the-story is filled with a lot of sweat and laughter-induced-tears (no blood, fortunately!) 

Wish Elmira’s downtown luck!