Vets organization pulls out of Hall of Fame building purchase

By NEWSChannel 2 Staff

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - A controversy over the possible relocation of a non-profit organization to a revitalized business district in downtown Utica may have come to an end, but not without some harsh words.

Differences of opinions flew when the organization known as Feed Our Vets expressed interest in purchasing the building that currently houses the National Running Hall of Fame in West Bagg's Square in the City of Utica. The area has recently been the site of revitalization efforts, with local businesses opening up shop along the historic district.

On Wednesday morning, Feed Our Vets Founder and Executive Director, Richard Synek, sent out an email to Running Hall of Fame and Boilermaker Executive Director Tim Reed, stating that the organization was pulling out of their plans to purchase the building following the controversy that ensued. Synek CC'ed various media outlets on the email as well.

"The contract has been pulled and is now null and voided. FOV does not want the men and women and the 200 children we feed to be exposed to people who have no respect for them and are not welcomed in the West Baggs Square area," Synek stated in the email. "All of us at Feed Our Vets apologizes for any inconvenience this may have caused."

Controversy over the possible move to the former Hall of Fame building began in April, when local business owners in the area expressed concerns about the move to local officials. Utica Coffee Roasting Company owner Frank Elias sent a letter to Utica Common Council First Ward member Frank Vescera and At-Large Member Jim Zecca, discussing some of his concerns about the possible move of Feed Our Vets to the Bagg's Square district. Elias CC'ed his email to various media oulets as well.

In that letter, Elias stated:

"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.

Elias was joined by fellow Bagg's Square business, The Tailor and the Cook.

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."

The Tailor and the Cook"

Currently the Feed Our vets Food Pantry is running out of the old Neisner's building downtown, but Synek recently said that building may soon be sold, which is why he wants to purchase his own building, and had believed the Hall of Fame property would be perfect.

Councilman Vescera has said previously that he received complaints from other Bagg's Square area business owners beside Elias, and was 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 said in April. "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 pick-up once a week, that has been a concern at other places, and that's what these folks are concerned about. It has nothing to do with the organization or the purchase of the building."

Synek's email to Reed on Wednesday gave praise to the condition of the Hall of Fame building, calling it "...beautiful, well maintained and a perfect place to operate the only food pantry in the entire U.S. dedicated to feeding America's hungry veterans, their spouses and children."

However, Synek said he felt those he was looking to serve were being mistreated in the controversy.

"These veterans have proudly served, been exposed to the horrors of war, being treated by our own government with very long delays in entitlements and now being treated like second class citizens by a few near the building we wanted to purchase," he stated, adding that he is working with a realtor to find another location.

"This all could have been avoided if the business owners in Baggs Square West reached out to us prior to the unfounded and misinformed email," Synek stated.

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