Despite COVID-19, Much Let To Do,
Mayor’s Decision Firm: It’s Time To Go
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
With would-be successors able to circulate petitions in the next few days, six-year Mayor Gary Herzig Tuesday, Feb. 23, announced what many expected and others anticipated with regret: He will retire when his term ends on Dec. 31, 2021.
“During the past six years, by working together, the people of Oneonta have achieved remarkable progress,” he said in a statement, “in developing new housing options, supporting our local businesses, and strengthening our infrastructure while continuously improving upon our high quality of life.
“Even an unprecedented pandemic was not able to slow us down,” he said.
He vowed to spend his final “10 months working harder than ever” on opportunities that “will certainly present themselves in the post-COVID world.”
The political community was prepared for the announcement, with Common Council member Luke Murphy, in charge of the Democratic campaign, saying he expects a candidate, perhaps a woman, will announce by the end of the week.
Republican Council member Len Carson, who has been considered a possibility since leaving the county Board of Representatives three years ago, said he’s “thinking about it.”
Herzig entered the public sphere after Mayor Dick Miller’s suicide in October 2014, “It was a very difficult time,” he recalled. “Oneonta had begun to make some real progress, through Kim Muller with Muller Plaza and the (Clarion) hotel. John Nader with Bresee’s. Foothills, Dick helped it in the early years.
“When Dick left us, we started to spin our wheels,” he said.
As Opportunities for Otsego COO – he was planning to retire – Herzig had worked with the three previous mayors, including Miller on the Housing Visions developments in the Silver Creek neighborhood.
“I had not previously thought about running for mayor,” he said. But, facing no opposition, Common Council appointed him to the top job on Sept. 15, 2015, and acting Mayor Russ Southard stepped aside.
Gary Herzig, born in 1949, grew up in New York City and attended Queens College, then charging $32 a semester, majoring in chemistry.
Graduating in 1971, he drove a cab for three years, recognizing “my real passion for working directly with people.” He then taught in an inner city junior high school.
But it was “a time when young people’s thoughts were about five acres and independence.” A college friend had bought a farm in Delaware County, and “I would routinely travel to this region because it was so beautiful.”
He was introduced to Oneonta, moving here in 1975.
Married, he moved to East Meredith, where his daughter Sasha, now an attorney in Troy, was born. And he started his own business in Delhi, “selling, installing, wholesaling multi-fuel boilers in furnaces” as the Arab Oil Embargo pushed up oil prices.
In the mid-‘90s, he moved back to Oneonta, married now-First Lady Connie, now retired Cooperstown Elementary School athletic director, and spent the next 12 years at the Job Corps Center, six as director, before joining OFO as COO.
He discovered: “There are a lot of people who were struggling to find decent housing they could afford. Good quality jobs that paid benefits at a good salary were at a premium, and tough to find.”
He also worked directly with government agencies, “regulators and funders,” gaining understanding that would help him later as Oneonta’s mayor.
A few months into his mayoralty, Otsego Now then-President Sandy Mathes tipped him off to exciting news from Albany: Governor Cuomo’s new Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) planned to award $10 million to one city in each of the state’s 13 regional development commissions.
“We knew the competition was going to be tough,” he said. “At least 10 communities were going to apply.”
Herzig assembled a planning team that included both college presidents, Hartwick’s Margaret L. Drugovich and SUNY’s Nancy Kleniewski, and “we hammered out an application.”
On July 20, 2016, in the packed “black box” theater at Foothills, Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky broke the news to the thrilled crowd: Oneonta had won the Mohawk Valley Region’s $10 million.
“I remember being told this by the governor’s office,” said Herzig: “They made the announcement in every region of the state that year: The most enthusiastic and energetic response that they saw was in Oneonta.”
That defined the rest of Herzig’s mayoralty.
“The DRI, the money and attention has the city moving forward,” he said, “developing more options for good quality rentals downtown, creating more middle-income housing, artists’ lofts, an exciting partnership with Hartwick’s innovation center, new facades and signs, by this summer a blight-reducing building on Market Street, a renovated garage.
What about the rough spots?
“There have been a lot of challenges,” he said. “The hard part is that anytime you want to do something different, it’s difficult. You can say, we’re going to do something new here, and expect every-
body’s going to think it’s a good idea. You often have to listen to people who don’t agree it’s a good idea.”
As for the final challenge, the pandemic, Herzig said, “it’s remarkable how people of Oneonta have really come together. People who would generally be arguing about little things, would help
His “Survive, then Thrive” initiative, he said, brought 50 people together “to help us come up with solutions. It didn’t slow us down at all with all our plans to continue future growth.”
The COVID-related crisis at SUNY Oneonta “has strengthened our partnership with the two colleges, because we’ve learned we’re all in this together: We’re going to succeed together, or we’re going to fail together.”
And now, the end.
As for retirement, “I’ll take some time for myself, and take it from there.”
Will he join the annual Oneonta pilgrimage to Venice, Fla.? “I think the winters are beautiful,” he said. “I’ve been out cross-country skiing 10 times this year. Just two days ago, I was up skiing around Wilber Lake. It was absolutely beautiful. The sun was out. Fresh, white snow: It was magnificent.”
But not yet!
“I’m not going anywhere. We have to make sure we are well positioned coming out of COVID. Right now, I’m thinking about all the work that needs to be done.”