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Some business owners in Utica don't want food pantry to move in nearby

By GARY LIBERATORE

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - Frank Elias owns Utica Coffee Roasting Company and says he doesn't want a food pantry to be moving in near his Baggs Square business.

Elias sent a letter to Utica Common Council First Ward member Frank Vescera and at large member Jim Zecca.

Elias is not happy to hear that the not for profit organization called 'Feed Our Vets' in contract talks with the owners of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame building to purchase it and put his food pantry in.

Elias listed the following 10 concerns :

1. Feed our Vets is a Food Pantry, whose mission it is to help homeless veterans. As you can imagine, many in the Baggs Square district are concerned. Another Food Bank/Food Pantry downtown - On Main Street - as you enter our newly designed Genesee Street. This is NOT the best fit for our downtown.

2. Look at the circumstance of a Food Pantry on Bleecker Street. No parking, Boxes all over the street and a nefarious crowd. We will now most likely have to deal with this very similar circumstance in our neighborhood. Not welcome - especially for those of us who have kids.

3. Private investment has been coming to the Gateway district. The addition of a Not-for-Profit Food Pantry is not the direction that was intended for this district through the Master Plan, nor is it the appropriate facade that we must present to visitors, or Mohawk Valley residents who have been reluctant to travel to downtown.

4. Since investing in this neighborhood in 2003, I personally have fought blight, crime, drug infestation, prostitution, and nefarious crowds released from prisons or mental health hospitals. There has been much progress - a Food Bank whose mission it is to feed and clothe homeless - with no loading dock and lack of parking, is a concern and arguably a step in the wrong direction.

5. As a tax paying for profit business owner and investor, I continue to be greatly concerned with the proliferation of Not-For-Profits with large sums of cash and other assets, which avoid paying property taxes. In fact, the remaining tax base of  private business owners "subsidize" this proliferation of Not-For-Profits by our continuance to pay property taxes. I pay taxes - they do not.

6. My business Utica Coffee Roasting was started as a stake in the sand. A stake to invest in Utica, invest in an economically depressed area. An effort to revitalize through responsible, business investment. I, and others have invested our time, effort, life savings, and we have shown success. It is disappointing that these efforts can be set back. This is not just a setback for our neighborhood, this is a setback for our city.

7. In review of this Not-For-Profits 990 Financial returns. The financials show an incredibly large sum of grants, and contributions during the 2011 fiscal year. While grants are great for not-for-profits. The continuance of such grants are not to be relied upon for sustenance. I clearly see concerns as grant revenues dry up. What then will we have? Great Homeless shelter? Truly, I see future concerns.

8. The Board of Directors of this not for profit has family relationships with employees of the organization. While this does not indicate any inappropriate activity, it should raise the level of awareness of how and why these not-for-profits operate.

9. We already have a Veterans Outreach and Resource Center in our downtown. Why do we need another organization with a duplicating mission, competing and not cooperating with each other? These two organizations were working together in one building, the former YMCA building - which remains underutilized to its fullest potential. In an age of cooperation and shared services, and reduced grant dollars to support not-for-profits, this should be concerning to taxpayers and residents.

10. Zoning. While the intended use of this building seems to fit the current zoning. Property owners should be concerned with the lack of ability to unload donated food and clothing items. In addition, the large number of boxes, and other refuse will likely be disposed of on the front curb. We should all have concerns with what we are allowing to happen on our main street. 

Currently the Feed Our vets Food Pantry is running out of the old Neisner's building right downtown, but founder Rich Synek says that building may soon be sold, so he wants to purchase his own building, and believes the Hall of Fame property would be perfect.

He says he serves around 1000 veterans each year, and last year gave away 48,000 pounds of food.

He says the veterans he serves are low income vets, but are not criminals and not drug addicts and not what Elias referred to in his second concern above, 'nefarious'.

Synek says he was hurt when he read Elias's email to the two council members, "I'm not going to respond to it because I know it really stabbed me in the heart cause I took that as a stab for all veterans, it was my wound."

Synek, a U.S. Navy veteran says he wants to add a recreation center, and a military museum, "There's tens of thousands of veterans in Central New York that can provide tens of thousands of stories and photographs and stuff related to their service, and also can be used for school children to come down and see what veterans have done for the community."

As far as any cleanliness issues, Synek says other business owners shouldn't have any concerns, "We're going to exactly down there what we do here.  We do it very early in the morning so we're not blocking traffic, we do it at night, so we're in nobody's way.  We've been doing this for years, same thing with the trash, I take it home with me and put it out, so there's no issues with trash when we have trash, I take it home with me and put it out."

Councilman Vescera says he has received complaints from other Baggs Square area business owners beside Elias, and will be looking into those concerns, "That is an up and coming block and you have quite a bit of investment there, and they have some valid concerns."

Vescera says he believes there is time to address the concerns before the closing of the purchase by Feed Our Vets of the Hall of Fame building.

He says the concerns are valid, "There's daily traffic, people are bringing in goods to donate, people are taking good back, there are a lot of packaging issues and with garbage pickup once a week, that has been a concern at other places, and hat's what these folks are concerned about, it has nothing to do with the organization or the purchase of the building."

He adds, "I'm not coming at this from a standpoint of trying to stop the sale, but I am trying to realistically see if they have a plan if this is going to indeed be a food bank to deal with the  issues that are commensurate with that  type of business."

On Wednesday afternoon, fellow business, The Tailor and the Cook, released a statement on their Facebook page, echoeing Elias' concerns, stating:

"We have issued a statement regarding the potential sale of the Long Distance Running Hall of Fame building to the Feed Our Vets Organization. Your conversation is welcome but we ask that you keep it civil and contained within this thread. Posts outside of those boundaries will be deleted.

"We as a community are morally obligated to respect and aid our nations veterans to whom we owe so much. We personally hold a great deal of respect for our nations veterans, many of whom are our close family and friends. With that being said, we also are responsible for fostering the smart growth of our city. Utica already has a comprehensive veterans association including a veterans food pantry only a short walk away. Given this fact, the excellent service that Feed Our Vets provides, in our opinion, would be more appropriately utilized in a neighborhood or area that does not already offer such services.

The addition of another for-profit business in a signature downtown building would not only add to revitalization of downtown as a destination, but would greatly benefit the local economy as well. Logic would dictate that a different and more beneficial arrangement is certainly possible for all parties involved."

Sincerely,
The Tailor and the Cook"

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