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Old Snell Hall. The building is a big part of downtown Potsdam's landscape. Photo: Sarah Harris.
Old Snell Hall. The building is a big part of downtown Potsdam's landscape. Photo: Sarah Harris.

Will Clarkson redevelopment "breathe some life" into Potsdam?

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Two neoclassical buildings in downtown Potsdam are on their way to getting a makeover. Clarkson University owns Old Snell Hall and Congden Hall, sandstone giants in the center of town. The university's partnered with a developer to revamp the two buildings. Their ambitious plan will provide space for arts nonprofits, graduate housing, and rental apartments. Sarah Harris checked out the buildings and the plans.

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Sarah Harris
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Step inside Snell Hall and you're transported back in time. There's a wide, echoey foyer with an art deco chandelier. The long hallways are bordered by small rows of reddish tile squares. It looks like nothing has changed since the sixties or seventies.

Jim Fish, Clarkson's CFO, says the building's still in good shape, but needs some cosmetic updates. "Architects will tell you the bones are as strong as can be, it's a beautiful old building."

Walking Old Snell's long hallways transports you back in time. Photo: Sarah Harris.
Walking Old Snell's long hallways transports you back in time. Photo: Sarah Harris.
Old Snell won't look like this for long. Clarkson has partnered with Omi Housing Development and Sequence Development, both in the Albany area, to turn Old Snell into a vibrant, multi-use building. The first and second floors will be home to the St. Lawrence County Arts Council and the North Country Children's Museum. Each organization will have galleries and exhibits, studio and office space. Above that, they'd build about 20 high-end apartments. Next door, Congden Hall would be turned into graduate housing.

We walk upstairs, past the auditorium and up to the third floor. It's dark, with empty classrooms and offices. "You have to use your imagination as how these would be converted one, two bedroom apartments," Fish says, noting that the units would have "market rents, to attract young individuals and families that want to come live in such a central spot right in the middle of Potsdam."

The fourth floor is something of an institutional detritus dumping ground. Photo: Sarah Harris.
The fourth floor is something of an institutional detritus dumping ground. Photo: Sarah Harris.
And then, it's up another staircase to the fourth floor, which is basically an attic packed with institutional junk - a trellis with fake flowers, boxes of old financial records, spare auditorium seats, a pile of ancient snow shoes. Clarkson's ROTC keeps its gear up here. And it does take a lot of imagination to picture apartments up here, apartments that Jim Fish says will have skylights. Just looking at the building, you can tell it's going to take a lot of work, and a lot of money. The total project is estimated to cost between $25 and $27 million.

Jim Fish explains that Clarkson will lease the buildings to the developer: "I think it's going to be a 30-year term approximately give or take. They will come in, make the improvements, make the investment, and then benefit from the rents they will earn over the term of the contract. At the end of it will revert back to the university." And it's the developers who will put up the investment to rehab the two buildings.

Jeff Buell is with Sequence Development. He says the first step is getting Congden and Snell Halls on the National Registry of Historic Places. That'll provide tax credits to finance the project. The developers are also working with the children's museum and the arts council to seek grant funding from New York state. "And the rest of the project will be financed with a loan," Buell explains. "So it'll probably end up being a $16 million loan," with between 10 and 12 million coming from developer equity, tax credits, and grants; "the whole rest of the stack there has yet to be determined."

Buell says it is a financial risk for the developers to take out that big a loan on a building in Potsdam. He says a big part of the financial picture is figuring out where the developers can make their money. But he's confident the project will succeed, and give Potsdam the boost it needs. "If we do something special here and Potsdam started turning around a little bit, that's how you're going to reverse the brain drain that everybody in New York wants to reverse," Buell says. "It's not by offering crazy incentives, it's by offering people a place where they can enjoy their lives."

Steve Yugartis is mayor of Potsdam. He says the children's museum and the arts council will make Old Snell a destination. "It takes what could be a big, dull, old building with apartments in it and it makes it something special." Yugartis says the refurbished buildings will benefit the village financially as well.

"It's going to be a great mix of housing for us. It's going to bring more activity downtown. My understanding is those buildings will be on the tax rolls. From a mayor's point of view it's always nice to see new buildings coming on the tax roll and the income that's going to generate. So it looks a very positive step for Potsdam."

Ian Hazen, Clarkson's director of facilities, lets us in to Congden Hall. The entryway is coated with pigeon feathers. Inside, the paint's peeling. The two-story gymnasium still has the lines of an old basketball court painted on its dark wood floor.

Hazen says loves seeing old buildings repurposed. And he's excited about what it might bring to the town. "I think it'll have a huge impact on Potsdam. I think it'll breathe some life back into Potsdam, getting a destination point for people to go."

Right now the developers say they'll start construction on Congden Hall first. They hope to break ground by the end of this year.

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