WATERTOWN — Renters have not had so many choices of where to live in and around the city for a long, long time.
Local developer Brian H. Murray gave that assessment Wednesday during the 2015 Economic Forecast Forum hosted by the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce at the Ramada Inn, which featured a panel discussion on the short-range forecast of the local and national economies.
The Woolworth Building, two new apartment complexes in the town of Watertown, the redevelopment of the old Mercy Hospital, and single-family homes and duplexes dotting the city are among the many reasons for a changing housing stock.
It’s good news for renters, he said.
With all that competition, rent is now coming down, said Mr. Murray, CEO and founder of Washington Street Properties.
“Overall, the market is healthy,” Mr. Murray told about 80 business owners and leaders.
With so many projects completed or underway, the community has met Fort Drum’s need for more than 1,000 units, he said.
Watertown is not alone.
Mark Tryniski, CEO and president of DeWitt-based Community Bank, said communities across the country are going through the same trend of people moving back into city centers. It’s happening in Syracuse, where Armory Square has become a mecca for urban dwellers, he said.
“It’s called urbanization,” he said. “You will continue to see that’s happening.”
Some local apartment complexes now have vacancy rates of 20 percent and offer a free month’s rate or other incentives to attract new tenants, Mr. Murray said.
There’s now an ample supply of housing and high-end apartments that go for $1,000 to $1,200 a month, but demand remains for units in the $500 to $900 range, he said.
Mr. Murray is in the process of purchasing the Rodeway Inn, 652 Arsenal St., for $1.3 million and plans to convert the two-story hotel into 48 studio and one-bedroom apartments. Once that project is completed this spring, the units will cost around $500 per month to rent and include utilities.
In the past couple of years, Mr. Murray has acquired the Lincoln Building on Public Square; the Solar Building on Franklin Street; the former Hospice Foundation of Jefferson County Inc. building at 425 Washington St.; the former Sanquist Apartments at 505 Washington St.; the Top of the Square plaza; and the Palmer Street and College Heights apartments.
Downtown is in the midst of a building boom that’s also creating some 300,000 square feet of commercial space in the business district. Most of that space has been vacant, Mr. Murray said.
There are a couple of corporate office complex projects underway nearby, but “downtown has become the business district,” he said.
While he looked at investing in other communities, including some out of state, Mr. Murray decided to remain committed to Watertown, he said.
Community Bank also has invested in the north country during the past 10 years by doubling its footprint and adding nearly 50 branches in the region, Mr. Tryniski said.
There are more than 300 Community Bank employees working in the north country, he said.
“We perform really well in the north country,” he said.
The other speakers on the panel included: Stephen Hunt, regional director of Empire State Development; John Chatterton, vice president of operations for New York Air Brake; and Col. Gary Rosenberg, garrison commander of Fort Drum.
Sponsors of the 2014 Economic Forecast included Community Bank, Visual Technologies, Sackel & Navarra CPA PC, NNY Business Magazine and the Watertown Daily Times.
By Craig Fox, Times Staff Writer