UTICA — In a tumultuous time for refugee funding, the infusion of $1.75 million is welcome news for the region's immigrants. 

On Thursday, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees announced that it has garnered $1.75 million through the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council. That money will be used primarily for building costs after acquiring space in the former Utica School of Commerce building at 201 Bleecker Street — a $1.1 million purchase, said Shelly Callahan, executive director at the MVRCR.

“It’s going to help us buy the building and help us do some major rehabilitation here,” she said. “The focus will really be workforce development and making sure everyone has access and opportunity to all the services and employment opportunities here in the Mohawk Valley and beyond.”

The money was awarded after the center filed an application for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, a program started in 2015 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The program “strategically (focuses) on the economic development of Upstate (New York), as part of long-term, regionally based plans for economic growth,” according to the Empire State Development website.

The other part of the money will focus on a “One World Welcome and Opportunity Center,” Callahan said, which will tie directly into the funding given from Cuomo’s office for New Americans program. That means the center will be able to “bring in our community partners and service providers and maybe folks that we really haven’t worked closely with before,” Callahan said.

It also will include additional resources for various immigrant services such as English as a Second Language classes, case management expenses and even traffic safety classes.

“There are literally hundreds of people in and out of this building every day,” Callahan said. “If we’re able to make connections with those people with all the services and opportunities here in the Mohawk Valley, that’s going to be good for them certainly but also for those service providers.”

Physically, nothing will be apparent in the next few months, sans construction projects. The center needs a new roof since the current one is leaking, Callahan said. The welcome center building projects should come after.

For over a century, Utica has established a proud history in welcoming refugees and immigrants, including my ancestors, from all over the world. The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has been a great community partner and done an excellent job assimilating refugees into our community. The funding provided by the Regional Economic Development Council to establish a One World Welcome and Opportunity Center in downtown Utica will provide the necessary resources in helping MCRCR fulfill its mission.

Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri

The funding comes after a tough year for many immigration centers in the United States — including the Utica refugee center. In 2016 — the last year of the Obama Administration — roughly 110,000 refugees came into the United States. Meanwhile, in 2017 — the Trump Administration’s first year — 45,000 came into the United States, Callahan said.

Those numbers are reflected at the refugee center as well, with about 225 refugees coming into Utica in 2017, Callahan said. She said more than 400 refugees came into Utica in 2016.

Immigration Department Manager Azira Tabucic and Immigration Coordinator Tatjana Kulalic are former refugees. Now well established in the community, they were “very happy” with the windfall.

“I think it is amazing to help this professional building,” Tabucic said. “It does need some repairs, but to have everybody here together … it is, I think, convenient for everybody.”

Moving from the DeSales Center on Park Avenue to its current building, the opportunities were exciting for everyone at the center. Tabucic and Kulalic, however, were just as excited about the opportunities the new funding would bring to the downtown Utica area.

“I thing that we will bring new light and life into this area,” Kulalic said. “We all strive to get something better: more safe, more better for us, for our children, for the community.”

“Make community better and country better,” Tabucic added.

Contact reporter Joseph Labernik at 315-792-4995 or follow him on Twitter (@OD_Labernik).