Editor’s Note: This is the full text of Mayor Gary Herzig’s State of the City speech, delivered this evening to Common Council in Oneonta City Hall. It is Herzig fifth annual assessment of the city’s health.
By GARY HERZIG • Mayor of Oneonta
In 2018, Hartwick College’s president Margaret Drugovich introduced me to a young lady named Nadya Zhexembayeva, a 2001 graduate of Hartwick College. Nadya came to Hartwick College from Kazakhstan on a Freedom Support Act scholarship. She arrived, with $400 in her pocket, knowing very little English.
Today, as a consultant, she has helped companies such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Cisco, L’Oreal, and Dannon to thrive in today’s changing world by reinventing both their products and their business models. When asked what triggered her fascination with reinvention, she attributed it to her teenage years growing up in Kazakhstan. When the Soviet Union dissolved overnight, it left her society in shambles with no currency, constitution, police, or regulations. What she observed was that some panicked while others saw an opportunity – an opportunity for reinvention.
Nearly all businesses, not-for-profits, individuals, and communities come upon times when reinvention presents itself – as either an opportunity or a necessity. Who among us has not reinvented our self? I certainly have and have probably done so more times than most.
For the City of Oneonta, I believe this is one of those times. There are, of course, many, many things we all love about Oneonta. But we also know that we can do even better.
I can say this because during the past five years, hardly a day has gone by without someone stopping me on the street; approaching me in a restaurant or supermarket; sending me an email; calling me; or even knocking on my door to tell me that:
• 53 percent of our property is off the tax roll and our taxes are too high and I cannot afford to pay them.
• I can’t find a decent affordable place to live.
• There are too many empty storefronts on Main Street.
• Downtown is dead and on Friday and Saturday nights it is taken over by drinking college students.
• Too many houses in my neighborhood are being allowed to deteriorate.
And let us not forget that more than 20 percent of our residents are living below the poverty level.
These concerns are real and I can tell you that they keep me awake on too many nights. These are the reasons I asked hundreds of citizens from all walks of life to help us create a vision and a plan for our future.
With our fine colleges, historic downtown, vibrant arts community and surrounding natural beauty, Oneonta could and should be a thriving small city of the future.
With vision, planning and a willingness to change, the time is now to build upon our strengths. We live in a fast-changing world, and communities unable to reinvent are left behind.
Oneonta does have a glorious past; but, it will take courage, hard work, and a willingness to accept change to position ourselves to be a successful community of the future – one in which our children and our children’s children will want to live and be able to live.
We all lament that not enough of our young people – those who grew up here or those who came here for an education – choose to stay. But there are some bright spots and two are right here in this room.
Kaytee Lipari Shue grew up in Oneonta and returned to raise her family. And Luke Murphy came here, from Schenectady, for his education – a graduate of SUNY Oneonta’s Cooperstown Graduate Program – and decided to stay.
Hundreds of people gave of their time, during the past three years, to help us map out a vision for the future – and we owe them our thanks. They worked to provide us with a new Comprehensive Plan, Artspace study (SUNY), Oneonta Theater study (GOHS), parking study, housing study and more. They worked together for more than a year in creating a vision for our future – a vision of a small city which:
• provides adequate housing and employment options for an increasingly diverse population.
• serves as a destination for the arts, culture, recreation, and natural beauty.
• supports a business-friendly environment that encourages innovation.
• includes an attractive, pedestrian-friendly downtown based upon an eclectic mix of building types and uses
• is committed to environmental sustainability
• and will develop an innovative, multi-purpose business park attracting industry, creating new jobs, and adding to our local tax base.
Now it is our responsibility to act on the vision which they have created. We have made a start but we still have a way to go.
• The support we have given to our local businesses and entrepreneurs is unprecedented. More than $1 million is going to more than 40 local businesses to update building facades and signage – and we will begin to see the results this spring. We are looking to provide local property owners with another $1 million plus to help them turn vacant upper floors into quality market-rate housing – and we should be seeing new awards for this purpose very soon.
• It has been very exciting to see new, innovative, and unique businesses sprouting – almost like bright flowers in the Spring. Underground Attic, Tribe Yoga, the B Side, the new Autumn Café, Table Rocks Bouldering, Silber Design, Noah’s World, Toonie Moonie Organics, Shakedown Street Café, to name just a few. And you know what they all have in common? – the City of Oneonta helped them to get started with Microenterprise grants of up to $35,000. In the past four years, we have helped 28 small businesses and startups. And our Community Development director, Judy Pangman, has not only her fingerprints on every one of them – but her blood, sweat, and tears as well.
• We were successful in securing federal funds to support the restoration of the historic Stevens Hardware building and Oneonta’s iconic Nick’s Diner. Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that we don’t always get it right. There are risks involved and we cannot expect to win every time. One of our losses this year was Bombers’ Burritos. It hurts to lose and I know it makes us look bad – but even the best teams cannot win every game and there are no wins if you chose to take no risks.
• This spring, we will see new attractive Directory Signs throughout our downtown, and Welcome Signs at all five of our city gateways.
• We have a new Marketing Campaign designed to get people’s attention and to communicate all that our unique city has to offer. I thank Destination Oneonta for its work in supporting this campaign. And I have asked Trampoline to make a presentation at the Feb. 18 Council meeting on what has been accomplished and what is yet to come.
• Following the vision laid out for us by the DRI funded Oneonta Theater Restoration Study, we have begun the process of looking to the reinvention of the Market Street/Chestnut Street area as a potential Arts District anchored by the Foothills Performing Arts Center and a Restored Oneonta Theater. Hats off to Bob Brzozowski, Patrice Macaluso, Elizabeth Dunne, Elaine Bresee, and others who are putting together a real plan to acquire and restore the Oneonta Theater – Thank you.
• This year, we will remove the blight on the corner of Market and Chestnut streets. Within the next 60-90 days, we will begin to see designs for a redesigned Municipal Parking Garage, a new transit hub and a more inviting pedestrian-friendly Market Street with walkways to and from our Main Street.
• And creating a new Lettis Highway that respects the safety of those who choose to walk or need to walk will be a top priority.
• With the help of our Senator Seward, we have begun the process of reinventing our historic Damaschke Field. The first phase, this year, will be to remove the old decaying grandstand, install a temporary backstop, new baseline box seats and dugouts, and protect all seats with today’s new technology in protective netting. The following year, we will strive to create a new family-friendly multi-purpose area behind home plate.
• Our Council, this past year, created the foundation for the development of a center for jobs and innovation in our former D&H Rail Yard. We will create good jobs while, at the same time, respecting our environment. And Mark Davies – former Environmental Board chairman, now a Council member – I know will be our conscience on environmental issues.
• This year, we will begin to create a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan to take advantage of the fact that we have the beautiful Susquehanna River flowing through our downtown. And that would not be happening without the passion and determination of Judy Pangman, our Community Development Director.
• We will continue to rebuild our aging – old! – infrastructure. After completing the rebuild of both of our reservoir dams, and numerous water mains, we will now start on an $8 million upgrade to our 1970 Wastewater Treatment Plant.
• Dog lovers will get a first-class dog park in Neahwa Park this year.
• We can expect to see progress in rectifying neighborhood blight as we implement new ordinances passed by our Council to give our Code Enforcement Staff more tools and authorities to do so. And under the leadership of Stephen Yerly, our Codes Office has sent a very clear message that unsafe rental properties will not be tolerated in the City of Oneonta. And that applies equally whether you have a one unit student house or the largest building on Main Street.
• And all this is being accomplished with an average tax increase below 1 percent during the past six years.
I have mentioned some of our staff accomplishments but there is so much more:
• Oneonta Police Department led by Chief Brenner and Lieutenant Witzenburg is proud to be state accredited. Chief Brenner has received both awards and recognition for the way in which he and our department have worked to overcome the problem of opioid addiction which is killing our people, both young and old. And, recognizing the terrible explosion of gun violence in this country, OPD has been commended for the Active Shooter Training which they provide to our major employers. We pray it will never be needed, but under OPD’s leadership, we are making ourselves prepared.
• Oneonta Fire Department led by Chief Pidgeon and Assistant Chief Maloney is universally respected and recognized for their training, professionalism, equipment, and putting the safety of others first. Our large community events like the Hometown 4th of July, First Night Oneonta, Balloon Fest, Pit Run, and holiday parades could not happen safely – or happen at all – without our Fire and Police working to plan them in partnership.
• Our water and wastewater treatment plant operators – Stan Schaefer (NYS Operator of the Year), Chris Peligra – provide the dedication and expertise which allow 14,000 people to take what they do for granted.
• City Engineer Greg Mattice leads the way in making Oneonta a City for the Future. In addition to overseeing the rebuilding of our infrastructure, he is a passionate advocate for a walkable community that is designed not only for cars – but one that is designed to be also accessible and safe to pedestrians, bicyclists, and persons with disabilities. Hi is also an advocate for using technology to create a Smart City and for Environmental Sustainability – serving as one of the five people on Otsego County’s Energy Planning Leadership Team. He has also done much of the legwork in preparing us for this year’s conversion of all city streetlights to LED.
– Transit Director, David Hotaling has flawlessly implemented the transition to an all new fleet of buses and, most importantly, he recognizes that for many of the people who rely on Oneonta Public Transit – our buses are lifelines and our drivers are family. David has demonstrated that he is dedicated to make sure we recognize and respect that.
I want to thank George Korthauer for his service and wish him and his wife, Brenda, well as they head back to beautiful Petoskey, MI. He taught us more about trucks, plows, sewer jets, and ambulances than we ever knew existed and, in exchange, our Clerks taught him how to use a cell phone.
Our Department Heads have exceeded all expectations despite riding a management roller coaster these past six or seven years. We have 6 brand new Council Members who are dedicated and enthusiastic – it is an exciting group.
This will be a highly consequential decision and we, therefore, must take the time to allow them to know and understand the unique strengths and challenges faced by each of our Department Heads. Our accomplishments have been realized through their blood, sweat, and tears – literally. We owe our Department Heads the opportunity to, at a minimum, tell us their perspective on what type of management is needed at this time.
Before closing, I have to mention the Lofts on Dietz Street. A made-to-order spark plug for our downtown with 40 affordable housing lofts, 24 affordable middle-income apartments, an art gallery, and the Hartwick College Grain Innovation Center.
For decades, Oneonta has sought to bring an academic presence from our colleges to our downtown. Thank you to President Drugovich for responding to this need and opportunity. It would have been easier and cheaper for Hartwick College to put this Center on their campus but they are putting it downtown because they believe that the college and the city are inextricably linked. And that a strong Oneonta needs a strong Hartwick College and vice versa.
And yes, we were thrown a speed bump with Johna Peachin’s lawsuit in which she does express her concern that this project, and I quote, “will adversely impact her exercise schedule.” Look, we all have our priorities, but in my opinion, Johna’s needs have not always been the people’s needs – whether it has been devaluing the work of our City Firefighters or turning Market Street into a center for whiskey tasting rooms.
One final, and seriously important, item – 2020 is a census year. The City of Oneonta has been, and continues to be, at real risk for being undercounted. The reason is simple – college students and low-income households make up a large percentage of our population. Our funding for items which include Head Start, highway and bridge construction and maintenance, food stamps, housing, and even Medicaid are tied to the census. We have partnered with Opportunities for Otsego and with both or our colleges to create a Complete Count Committee tasked with developing and implementing strategies to see that we are properly counted and funded.
Let me close with a very short story. Last week, I was walking down Main Street with a friend of mine who does not live in Oneonta. He looked around and said to me, “Oneonta has so much potential”. All I could think about were the comments made, nearly 60 years ago, by my teachers on my report cards – which generally began with, “Gary has much potential, however. . .”
It seems that some things you just never forget! My goal – our goal – is to stop having to hear about our potential. The way we achieve that is to realize our potential. Thank you to the hundreds of citizens who have contributed, we now have a plan to do just that and it will take all of us – all of us – working together to make it happen.
Thank you – and let’s get to work.