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Watertown gets increased transportation resources, may be declared a metro area

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Underdog Watertown may soon join the big boys, including Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Ithaca and Buffalo.

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the greater Watertown area, which includes parts of Dexter, LeRay and Carthage, an urbanized area with a population of 57,840.

The designation may have an impact on federal funding and economic development in the area, according to planners. Area officials view the designation as an asset.

“This is the beginning of something new to the region. How best to capture that new opportunity is incumbent upon us to examine now,” said Robert F. Hagemann III, Jefferson County administrator.

If the Watertown urbanized area is declared a metropolitan area in June 2013, it could attract site developers for business and industry.

According to David J. Zembiec, deputy CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, becoming a metropolitan area “certainly could raise the profile of the area” and will make it “easier to gather the demographic and work force data that facilities look for.”

That data can help to augment the marketing JCIDA is already doing, making the area more visible to potential business investors.

In anticipation of the new designation, JCIDA is working with county officials to lay out a plan, Mr. Zembiec said. To do that, JCIDA will reach out to communities that have recently become metropolitan areas, including Ithaca.

The area may also be able to receive additional funding from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, though officials are still trying to understand how that may factor into their planning processes.

“It’s all premature to anticipate how those agencies will determine how those programs will be altered. We’re trying to stay on top of it,” according to Donald R. Canfield, Jefferson County planning director.

On March 23, the greater Watertown area will have its own Metropolitan Planning Organization, which will be responsible for coordinating state and federal funding of highway and bridge projects as well as public transit.

The state Department of Transportation will play an integral role in helping set up the MPO, which will also include county and city assets.

“The two main focuses of the MPO will be highway and bridge funding and then also transit funding,” said Mark E. Frechette, DOT acting regional director.

MPO members will coordinate how federal money is used in the region to improve roads and public transit.

The MPO will comprise two committees, a planning committee and a policy committee, according to Mr. Frechette.

A policy committee will likely be composed of elected officials from the city; the DOT commissioner, with authority delegated through the regional director; and the county administrator.

Planning committees typically are made up of people who deal with transportation work daily and will likely include the city engineer, county highway superintendent and a DOT representative.

All three entities already work together.

“Our relationship between DOT, city of Watertown and Jefferson County is an excellent partnership,” Mr. Frechette said.

Mr. Frechette has previously worked on MPOs in Syracuse and Ithaca.

Ithaca became an urbanized area, and subsequently a metropolitan area, about 20 years ago after the 1990 census. Mr. Frechette compared Watertown to Ithaca in terms of its size and population demographics. The influx of students at the colleges in the Ithaca area is roughly analogous to the number of soldiers at Fort Drum in the Watertown area.

The shape of a metropolitan area can vary according to how the Census Bureau draws the map. It can follow the geographic borders of the county or be framed around population concentration.

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