By Brian Karimi
Former Union president Roger Hull ended commencement speeches with his strong belief that it is the job of each of us to “Make a difference, do well, do good.” He says this is the spirit which guided his years at Union and which guides him now toward his mayoral bid.
But it is precisely his years here at Union which will complicate matters for Hull’s mayoral run.
The relationship between Union and Schenectady has undergone changes since Hull began his tenure, but it is not clear that the relationship is yet healthy enough to render Hull free from attacks that he is an elite and thus detached from the interests of Schenectady’s residents.
When Hull became president in 1990, Union was referred to by a local politician as the “Vatican” sitting inside Schenectady. The Concordiensis, recounts Hull, was critical when he suggested taking down the college fence in order to improve relations and perceptions.
As to the state of the relationship these days, Hull could not comment. Out of respect to the current president he has remained uninvolved.
“I have stayed away on purpose from Union,” he said.
Hull contends that he did a great deal of work toward improving relations between the college and the city during his presidency.
“You could count probably on one hand, but certainly two hands, how many colleges wanted to get their community involved,” he said. Union, he explained, was among the few.
Not all were happy with Hull’s decision to devote time to improving this relationship: “Some members of the board of trustees questioned my involvement with the city.”
Nonetheless, Hull used spare time to get involved with the city by co-founding Schenectady 2000, the predecessor to the city’s current development authority, Metroplex. Several small business owners downtown are dissatisfied with Metroplex, which they feel has ignored their concerns in favor of larger and more prosperous businesses, such as Bombers, which is also affiliated with the college via its founder, a graduate of Union. One owner complained that larger businesses had received tax breaks that he has been denied.
“I feel very good about what Metroplex has done,” Hull explained.
Hull pushed for the movie theater downtown and is currently in support of a another Schenectady-Albany rail track.
The relationship with Metroplex is not the only potential challenge. Bradley Lewis of the economics department, who helped found Hull’s bipartisan Alliance Party, enumerated other problems Hull might face.
During his presidency, Hull sued the city on behalf of the college in order to acquire the properties on Lenox Road. But Zoe Oxley, political science department chair, believes most in town will have forgotten the lawsuit. What they are more likely to remember is Hull purchase of 52 properties on and around Seward Place.
[pullquote]“I can’t give back my degrees, and I can’t get rid of my house, and I can’t give back my 15 years at Union,” Hull says. “I am who I am.”[/pullquote]
Hull explained that the neighborhood behind Seward “was all crack-houses and slums” until the college purchased the properties and transformed the area. He holds that it was only after he announced his candidacy that opponents criticized him for taking property tax revenue away from the city.
The objection, explained Oxley, is a popular one. Critics say Hull “wouldn’t pay a PILOT.” PILOT is an acronym for “payment in lieu of taxes.” Union does not pay property taxes because it is a non-profit organization, but many wealthy non-profits give the government a PILOT to compensate for the loss of revenue.
But Oxley explained that most universities do not pay PILOTs and that Hull’s position was consistent with presidents before him. Still, the perception that Hull favored the college over the city might prove a formidable objection to Hull’s bid.
Both Hull and Oxley believe the Seward neighborhood has improved since the college’s involvement. The state of neighborhoods and plans to rejuvenate them is likely to be at the center mayoral debates.
Lewis explained that perhaps more detrimental than these issues is Hull’s friendship with a group many understand as an “old boy” network, including Neil Golub.
“I can’t give back my degrees, and I can’t get rid of my house, and I can’t give back my 15 years at Union,” Hull says. “I am who I am.”
This article is part of an ongoing series in World Views on Roger Hull’s mayoral campaign.