The ongoing revitalization of city neighborhoods inspired by the Oswego Renaissance Association enters its third year, having grown hand-in-hand with the participation of SUNY Oswego

In addition to the efforts of hundreds of homeowners from many walks of life and to city and sponsor collaboration, the project also owes success to date thanks to SUNY Oswego faculty members serving as executive director and board members; students, faculty and staff as improvement-minded homeowners; and direct and indirect financial and management support from the college and the State University of New York.

Psychology professor Paul Stewart launched the ORA in 2013, and serves as executive director. He began leading the block-by-block renewal effort by example, having partnered on the historic renovation of the former Swits Churchill Conde house on West Seneca Street.

While the majority of ORA grant recipients are not SUNY Oswego employees, a number of faculty members have participated in strengthening the applications of the whole neighborhood and are investing time, energy and money in leading neighborhood blocks, Stewart noted.

The neighborhood revitalization effort directly serves the college’s “Tomorrow” strategic plan, which focuses on specific impacts: “Our Communities and Partnerships: Communities we touch experience increased prosperity, social equity, sustainability, self-sufficiency and greater educational attainment.”

Community outreach

SUNY Oswego political science faculty member Lisa Glidden has participated in the ORA as a Fitzhugh Park-area homeowner, block captain, target-neighborhood co-captain and now as board member and grant writer. Adam Fay, a psychology faculty member, received assistance on his West Side home renovation project from an ORA block challenge grant and some sweat equity from computer science faculty member Jim Early, himself an ORA grant recipient.

August graduate Jarrid Rockwood worked on a project with dozens of other students to spruce up Franklin Square Park, helped his landlord to undertake ORA-assisted improvements, and helped rally his Psi Phi Gamma fraternity brothers to participate and to assist neighbors on the West Side.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind support from SUNY Oswego and from the ORA’s fiduciary agent, the Research Foundation of SUNY, have supplemented direct grants from the Richard S. Shineman Foundation and sponsorships from such companies as Pathfinder Bank, Novelis and Exelon.

“Just as it would not be possible to do what the ORA is doing without Shineman Foundation participation, it is also fair to say that it would be incredibly difficult to achieve without the resources that SUNY Oswego put into this,” Stewart said.

Stewart, whose Mahar Hall office serves as the ORA’s college-supported headquarters, said SUNY Oswego administrators were receptive when he approached them with his idea for a neighborhood revitalization project patterned on the success of a sister project in Jamestown.

“I have to give the president and the campus credit for being willing to take a risk on this kind of somewhat unconventional community outreach project,” he said.

The college’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP), which includes several employees of the SUNY Research Foundation, has played a crucial role in managing the Shineman Foundation’s $500,000 in grants for the project.

ORSP Director Bill Bowers said his office writes checks for grants, tracks all expenditures, assures that the project follows Shineman’s and SUNY’s reporting and other rules, makes sure project status reports are done on time, and more.

“If this fell on Paul or on the ORA, that would be a very difficult burden,” Bowers said. “They would have to do all the accounting. We run the management side. There is no financial benefit to this office; this is a service being done for the community.”

‘Social capital’

The project, which builds on city of Oswego neighborhood strengths as well on a strong basis of homeowner psychology, made $81,000 in small grants for fix-up, spruce-up projects in 2014 and more than $135,000 last year. Neighborhood-pride projects in parks such as Franklin Square, Montcalm and Fitzhugh also have fed an ensuing viral effect, as the effort has spun off more exterior home improvement projects by the grant recipients and their neighbors.

Stewart said the ORA has determined that homeowners have spent nearly an additional $4 for every $1 in grant funds. “You can’t say the ORA has been the sole driver, but it’s been a catalyst, there’s just no question,” he said. By December 2016, Stewart said he expects the total amount of leveraged investment in the targeted neighborhoods to reach the $1.5 million mark.

Fay learned of the ORA’s block challenge grants through Stewart, his department colleague, on a driving tour of city neighborhoods when Fay was a candidate for a faculty position. When Fay and his wife bought a home in the Franklin Square Park area, they applied for one of the small matching grants to help redo their landscaping. Fay said he met at least 30 neighbors—and borrowed tools from five—as he was doing the work, receiving help from Early to dig a trench for the foundation of a retaining wall.

“I really like the approach,” Fay said. “It really sounds like Paul is trying to ground the project in psychological theory. It’s not just a gut reaction to something that might work.”

Glidden attests to the role that clustered ORA grants play in bringing a neighborhood together. “When I first moved to the Fitzhugh Park area, it was difficult to integrate in the neighborhood,” she said. “It was only through the ORA that I got to meet my neighbors. My house looks better, but the sociological impact was way more important.”

She added, “Interestingly, a lot of my (academic research) work is on sociological connections and social capital. I’ve always been interested in grassroots social movements.”

Rockwood, who now has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, said credit is due to Stewart’s own leadership and hard work for helping induce the domino effect on other neighbors in his West Side neighborhood.

“It has been really nice dealing with Paul. He’s been an inspiration to everyone in the neighborhood, especially considering what he did at his own house and his helping the city of Oswego get that $10 million (state Downtown Redevelopment Initiative) grant,” Rockwood said.

SUNY Oswego faculty, staff and student involvement as neighbors has had a strong impact on the targeted revitalization efforts, and has helped draw interest from landlords who want to improve their properties, Stewart said. The project and other redevelopment spurs, such as the Oswego County Land Bank Corp. and Downtown Redevelopment Initiative, also have helped initiate significant reinvestments, such as conversions of former rentals to single-family homes, he said.

“What’s good for the city of Oswego is good for the college, and vice versa,” Stewart said.