HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY for undeveloped land in Columbia County? Let’s say, for example, you wanted 33 acres near the intersection of state Routes 66 and 9H? Would you pay $10,272 per acre?
Ginsberg’s, the locally owned institutional food supplier in Claverack, paid that much last week to the the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC). But this was more than a routine business deal. The payment of $339,000 and change ended a chapter in a long-running story about local economic development in the county.
As for value, if you wanted roughly the same amount of land in Kinderhook near the Rensselaer County line, there’s a property listed for $1.1 million. That comes to roughly $34,000 an acre. But if you want 57 acres in Stuyvesant you can have it for a mere $6,900 an acre. Location, location….
The most notable thing about the Ginsberg’s deal was not where it is but what it cost: $1. It was part of CEDC’s package of assistance to support the company’s plan for a new warehouse and cold storage facility that would create jobs and assist Ginsberg’s growth. The company identifies itself as the “largest food service distributor in the Hudson Valley.”
But before the deal got very far, there was pushback about the no-cost land deal. It smacked of an insider giveaway, and the public anger spread when it turned out that the county had paid $150,000 for the property years earlier before handing it off to the CEDC. The assessed value was eventually set at $280,000.
The $1 price of the deal and other CEDC problems caused the county Board of Supervisors to withhold funding for CEDC operations until the CEDC could explain what it was doing and why.
It took an investigation by the state Authorities Budget Office to decide that the CEDC does indeed have the authority to give away land it owns in the interest of economic development. But the investigators didn’t have anything good to say about four members of the CEDC board who either did not disclose or did not properly resolve their conflicts of interest. Having pulled back the rug and exposed what crawled beneath, the report left it up to the CEDC to clean house.
Fortunately there were enough people left on the CEDC board who knew what ethical behavior meant and they hired F. Michael Tucker as the board’s new president. He quickly mended fences with the Board of Supervisors by offering to reimburse the county the $150,000 the supervisors had paid for the 33 acres. And he managed to convince the supervisors that the $1 sale price had a safety valve for the county: If Ginsberg’s didn’t complete its project within three years, the company would have to pay the CEDC the full assessed value of the property plus interest at a rate of 7% per year compounded annually.
That cleared the way for the project from the county’s perspective. And work soon started. Too soon for the federal government, which was going to contribute half a million dollars to the project. That funding was withdrawn because Ginsberg’s broke ground before the money was awarded, an explicit violation of the rules.
After that, nothing. Site preparation stopped. There’s no record of whether the loss of the federal funds sank the whole $14-million project or if Ginsberg’s decided that the time wasn’t right for the company to expand. Whatever the reason, the three-year window closed this month and the Ginsberg’s expansion project hadn’t started let alone made progress toward completion.
About a week ago CEDC billed Ginsberg’s for the whole amount, including interest (presumably taking into account the $1 already paid). And Ginsberg’s paid it. All $339,014.79
It’s entirely possible that the company is still getting a good deal on the land and that it could use it to enhance its business operations or maybe bolster its bottom line through a sale or lease. That’s what businesses do.
But there’s also something reassuring when a business, especially one so involved with public funds, fulfills its obligations without objection. The moral compass of the nation is askew. Lies entice us to select the “truth” we prefer. Promises are fairy tales for suckers. The numbers don’t add up, literally.
Then there’s this company, not heroes or saints, but people we might already know. Their plan didn’t work out the way they thought and they paid what was owed without challenge or histrionics. Yes, it frequently happens that way. But in these remarkable times it’s worth noting what it looks like when a company does the right thing.