Interesting in 2011: Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian

harry tuntunjian with uncle sam statue

Outgoing Troy mayor Harry Tutunjian.

All this week we'll be highlighting some of the interesting people we've gotten to know over the past year.

After two terms, Harry Tutunjian steps down as the mayor of Troy this week. In his eight-year tenure as mayor, Tutunjian has overseen a lot of change in the Collar City: new development, the controversial demolition of the former city hall, and the plan for the new Riverfront Park which broke ground this week. Tutunjian's term was also marked by some rather public and acrimonious battles with the Troy city council.

One the things we've found interesting about Tutunjian is that he's made frequent use of Twitter -- to share news, answer questions from constituents, promote local businesses, make contacts, and jab political opponents. And while Twitter might not necessarily have always been the best venue, we think public officials communicating this way is generally a good thing. And we'd love to see more local officials follow Tutunjian's example.

So, as his last term as mayor comes to a close, we talked with @TroyMayor about his time in office, his leadership style, and the appeal of the Collar City.

You've been very willing to engage people on Twitter. Why is that?

Twitter is an excellent way for me to get my thoughts and important information out to a wide audience very quickly. It has been fascinating to see how quickly some people respond and re-tweet.

During your tenure as mayor there's been some contention between you and the council. If you had to do it again would you take the same stance or attitude toward them or would you do it differently?

The city council has been a challenge to deal with. The issue has been a lack of leadership and communication. When I was city council president I met with the mayor every week. That allowed me to communicate to the other council members ongoing issues in the city. The unwillingness of the council president to meet has caused a rift and a lack of communication with the council. Only one council member met with me regularly and he is in the council minority, the others rejected my multiple invitations and refused to meet. My door has always been open to them.

On a couple of occasions you kind of called some of the council members out on a few in ways that might make someone reticent to openly communicate. Do you have any regrets or anything you'd change about that? Or is there anything you would do, in retrospect, to improve communication?

My door has always been open, especially to the city council. In recent years only one member, Mark McGrath, would come meet with me regularly. Members of the city council cannot lament the fact that there is no communication when they have refused to meet with me, face to face, to discuss city business. I was in city hall nearly every day for eight years. In those eight years councilman Bill Dunne entered my office maybe five times. I don't recall one scheduled meeting that involved a one-on-one conversation. Nearly every memo to the council closed with a sentence stating that I would be available to talk about the subject at hand.

How do you improve communication with people that refuse to sit down and talk? Government cannot be conducted effectively solely by the use of memo, email, and telephone. It is not as effective as sitting together and talking. Also, when the council would try to communicate via email, they copied the media and neighborhood groups on the communication. I am all for transparency, but it is impossible to discuss city business with a councilman via email when dozens of others are chiming in as well.

The last two years many council members have been plagued by legal issues and investigations into their activities in relation to voter fraud. Perhaps those distractions and the subsequent grand jury activities prevented the council members from communicating.

As far as calling council members out, they constantly accused me of criminality, corruption, and more. I am finishing my term proud and with my head up high. How many of the council members can say the same?

What are some of the things you feel you've left undone or wish you could have done?

I never liked to announce projects that I wasn't confident would actually happen; unfortunately many times the situation is not in our hands. The Ingalls Avenue Boat Launch and Park have been delayed by state and federal agencies. They will get built, but it has taken longer than I would have liked. We purchased the site of the former King Fuels near the Menands Bridge. We demolished many of the derelict buildings to make way for remediation and redevelopment. Again, the process is moving along, but slowly.

What are the things you're most proud of?

pfeil hardware nightI am proud of the fact that Troy, New York has become a destination for people from the Capital District and beyond. People want to come to Troy, they want to attend our events, explore downtown, appreciate the architecture, and enjoy Troy.

That wasn't always the case. People looked down their noses at Troy; we've helped turn that negativity into curiosity. In my eight years there has been over $110 million in new development and 1100 new jobs created. We have seen big projects built during a national recession. The Hilton Garden Inn, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, City Station, Blitman Commons and many more projects completed. Pfeil Hardware and Market Block Books are anchor stores in two buildings that were vacant when I took office. Work is underway at the Proctor's Theater and Chasan buildings; they have sat dormant for decades and only now are getting new life breathed into them. The site of the old city hall will be the home of two new buildings with over 100 riverfront apartments and retail shops. It will be a $30 million private investment that will transform downtown. We have also focused on assisting many smaller businesses in their efforts to stay in business and even expand their businesses in Troy. There are too many to list.

We have eight years of balanced budgets and minimal tax increases. Three years with no increases at all. Crime is down, the city looks and feels cleaner, but our work isn't done.

Was Troy sort of "bound to happen" or did some of the things happening there now come about because of the efforts of individual people?

The question isn't whether or not Troy was bound to happen or not, but what needed to be done in order for "it" to happen. My first goal once elected was to clean up the city, provide basic services, stabilize taxes, and restore pride in the city. That didn't take too long.

In my mind, part of the mayor's job is to be a cheerleader for the city. You have to believe in your product if you want to credibly promote it. There is nothing more credible than owning and operating a business in the city you represent [Tutunjian ran his family's auto body shop and sold cars before becoming mayor]. I felt good investing here, so naturally I could promote the city to others. We did it successfully and we made "it" happen. People that had never given Troy, New York a second thought looked at us seriously and bought into the excitement. The excitement was contagious, others joined in and the news was spread. Mom-and-pop stores and national developers started talking about Troy being business friendly and a great place to invest. The Business Improvement District (BID) was formed to further the effort to promote the city. That wouldn't have happened unless we first built the critical mass to support it.

Are the good things about Troy self apparent or do they need to be sold?

The good things about Troy are self apparent to those who can appreciate it. However, we can never stop selling the city. It is what I did every day. We successfully convinced a lot of people to invest huge sums of money in Troy. Many of those people needed the extra push we gave them. There are also many who stumbled upon Troy on their own and became successful.

dinosaur bar-b-que troy exteriorLet's look at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. They could have gone anywhere in the Northeast and opened up. Locally, they were looking at Albany, and were wooed by Schenectady, but they chose Troy. When Fresno's closed up the deputy mayor suggested to the Syracuse-based owner that he should try to sell his building to Dinosaur so they could open in Troy. It was said half jokingly, but a meeting was set up in my office a few weeks later. Imagine my surprise when I walked out of my office and saw Dinosaur founder John Stage standing there. After all, I did have his cookbook and I certainly recognized him. We met and we walked throughout downtown looking at many of the beautiful buildings and businesses. We went into Franklin Plaza, Ryan's Wake, Brown's Brewing and several more. We went into Fresno's and he saw the opportunity. I took John around the city by car and showed him how accessible the restaurant was to the colleges, hospitals, hotels, and highways. We sold Troy and it worked. Dinosaur has invested more than $3 million of their own money into the city of Troy and everyone who goes there and works there appreciates it.

There is more to Troy than just business. There are many distinct neighborhoods that offer everything from urban to rural living environments. Troy is accessible. We have forged strong working relationships with neighborhood groups that have become our partners in crime fighting and creating a better quality of life for everyone.

Do you have a philosophy about leadership or governing?

As a business owner and as mayor I have always believed in empowering the employees. I have always felt that the best way to lead is to lead by strong example. If the mayor doesn't work hard as a leader, how can he expect others to work hard as employees? I believe that a boss should be willing and able to do whatever he expects of his or her employees. I show up at fires and crime scenes at all hours of the day. If there is a major water main break in sub-zero temperatures, I was there. When there weren't enough snow plow drivers, I drove a plow. You cannot put a value on the importance of being hands on, or at the very least, being visible.

A leader should not always micro-manage. Be aware and accessible, but give your department heads the confidence and ability to act without the feeling they will be second guessed. If you have chosen the best and brightest people available to surround yourself with, you should be in good hands.

I am on a roll, but I better stop.

What's next for you?

I would like to stay involved in government. I have spent the last twelve years focusing on improving Troy, eight years as mayor and four on the city council, I want to see the forward movement continue. I still have private business ambitions, before I was mayor I ran my family's auto body shop and bought and sold cars. I will always love the thrill of buying and selling cars.

It has been an honor to serve the people of Troy, my hometown. On a final note, as mayor you get to meet a lot of famous people. One of my highlights was meeting President Obama. I met him at Hudson Valley Community College, my alma mater. I was fortunate to spend several minutes him. We actually met in one of my former classrooms. As we posed for the formal White House photo I said the following: "Mr. President, if you told me twenty years ago as I struggled with calculus in this very room that someday I would go on to be the mayor of my hometown and meet the President I would have said you were crazy." He responded with a big smile and said, "Only in America" and the photo was snapped. Imagine my surprise when moments later, while delivering his prepared speech, he paused and turned to me and told the crowd about our encounter. He got a laugh when he revealed to the audience that he never studied calculus. I will never forget that day.

This interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited.

Also interesting in 2011:
+ Sarah Gordon from FarmieMarket
+ Mike Guidice & Jen Pursley Guidice from Hounds on the Hudson and Albany chickens
+ Christian Noe from Nighthawk's Kitchen
+ Samson Contompasis from Marketplace Gallery
+ Britin and Nick Foster from All Good Bakers

Earlier on AOA:
+ Interesting in 2010
+ Interesting in 2009

photo courtesy of Harry Tutunjian

Comments

He's been a great mayor, the people who believe he's been satan incarnate need to disengage from the day to day warfare of small-town politics and open their eyes. Troy is undeniably better off now than when Harry took office despite a nationwide recession for the second half of his time.

Harry, you've been a great mayor, and you'll definitely be missed. Thank you for your service to our city.

(My first impression of Mayor Tutunjian was seeing him walking down the street picking up litter & tree branches...in a suit, with no PR or cameras in sight--got to like a true public servant like that)

Great interview and insight. Purely from the business perspective, it's great to hear the high-level vision he took with the city and how he managed it all. Thanks for highlighting Troy and the mayor. Hope the next four years bring as much to the area!

I think he's been a pretty good mayor too. He doesn't have a ton of gumption and I think the Troy Riverfront project is poorly thought out and waaaay misusing tax dollars (it could be done a lot nicer, user friendly, keep a few existing structures and cost a fraction of what he has agreed to have Troy pay). But I think there are also a TON of great improvements to Troy over the last many years. This city has grown and prospered so much lately and it's nice to see folks moving into the city because of it's great reputation.

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