I can honestly say this is a column I never thought I would write, my first as editor of The Freeman’s Journal and Hometown Oneonta.
I say that for two reasons: one, I spent the past decade in competition with the Iron String Press media team, while working as an editor and reporter for another news organization; two, that stint, with an Alabama-based organization I shall forever more refer to as the pension fund, did not go well.
My first play, “The Sun,” first staged in 2004, is about a small-town newspaper that is being destroyed as larger news organizations try to buy it. I spent the past decade at the pension fund thinking either irony is a cruel trick of life, or I was being blessed with an abundance of stories for the television adaptation.
The twin low points were mass layoffs on Good Friday/Passover eve and the closing of the Town Crier office and relegating the Cooperstown paper to a reprint.
As the Crier editor at the time, I took the laying off of my reporter (while I was on vacation, no less) hard and the office closing harder. I transferred to a couple of different roles at the pension fund’s daily, but it wasn’t a secret I hated commuting to Oneonta. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways as I got to know the city, its politicians and businesses, and the southern half of the county.
Still, I missed Cooperstown and the coronavirus pandemic and family issues made it harder and harder for me to commute.
I had been planning to quit the newspaper business for good this year, perhaps to go back to my dreams of making movies. Or, at least, to help other people make their movies. Last year, after years of discussions, I teamed up with a group of local film makers, businesspeople and political leaders to start a nonprofit 501c6 film commission office, Film COOP (rhymes with hoop, we are not a co-op), or more officially, The Cooperstown, Oneonta, Otsego County Film Partnership, Inc.
With a limited budget, the disadvantage of being a 501c6 rather than a charitable and heartstring 501c3, and not much film history in the region to tout or use as an example, we had our work cut out for us. And that was before the pandemic shut down much of the entertainment business in 2020.
Still, we have persevered. We became the pioneer film commission in the Mohawk Valley Economic Development District and calls/emails from professional film makers come in monthly. We are the official film commission of Otsego County, the city and town of Oneonta, and the village of Cooperstown, with more municipalities to follow. We have a great website www.film-coop.com and Facebook page that explain our mission, and one of our local partners is doing extremely well bringing work to the region.
We have a huge announcement coming soon, too.
For the past 15 months, I have been the president of Film COOP’s Board of Directors, serving as the de facto film commission, or agent, for the region. Although we have no paid staff, we have been working to fund a film commissioner position and I expect someday to take on that role, at least in the short term.
There’s a saying, life is what happens while you make other plans. Suddenly, unexpectedly, an opportunity came up to come back to Cooperstown and be closer to home more often. Considering how much success and potential these publications have had and have, the strain the pandemic has had on my family, and the frustrations of working for a pension fund rather than a news organization, I had to take the opportunity.
I admit, there’s a part of me that feels some unfinished business from 2015 when the Crier was doing so well pre-layoffs, or 2018 pre-closing, when I had learned to cope with the layoffs. However, I don’t want to dwell on the past too much. After all those years of quoting politicians saying “I want to look forward, not backward,” now I get to trope it up, too.
It is no secret I had a not-so-friendly rivalry with this organization’s previous publisher-editor, Jim Kevlin. However, I am grateful to him for keeping a locally owned newspaper viable for so long in Cooperstown and for creating a companion paper in Oneonta. I am further grateful to his late wife, M.J. Kevlin, for suggesting the online expansion that has become AllOtsego.com, and to Jim’s new bride, Sylvia Barrett, for giving him a joyful reason to retire.
I didn’t seek the opportunity that resulted from the retirement and sale of the paper, but it seemed like a perfect fit, at least for now. I thought my second stint in journalism would be my last, and here I am starting stint number three. I gave my commitment to my board that I would make it work for the commission and my commitment to my new publisher, Tara Barnwell, that I would take the helm for the year and see if we can make it work. Tara and I are two of the only Auburn University graduates in Cooperstown, perhaps the region, so I hope we will be a good team.
As for our new ownership group, I am grateful they, too, are committed to a locally owned news group.
Of course, being a reporter, editor and nonprofit board president (or executive director/film commissioner) at the same time is an inherent conflict of interest. Tara said she is fine with me having a life. The pension fund middle managers were begrudgingly accepting about it, although a reporter having a life technically violates the pension fund’s policies. Either way, it is what it is. My long-term goals are creative and not in journalism, but my short-term goals always include providing for my family and serving my community.
Interestingly, the film commission and the media company are similar for me in that respect. Having a locally owned media group dedicated to serving the community where we live is important for our community. So is catching up to the rest of the state in building out a film industry in our region, whatever we call it. Both jobs, editor or executive director/film commissioner, are acts of service to me.
So, happily I serve, and I will do my best to offer full disclosure, something we tried with mixed results at the pension fund. You can find a donor list on our Facebook page Film COOP. We started fundraising in November, after the election season. Several politicians did contribute unsolicited funds.
We were also looking for business partners. I had covered county government for years and written a couple of articles about the state senate race between then county Rep. Peter Oberacker Jr. and Jim Barber. The film commission in essence grew out of something I said at an Otsego County Board of Representatives meeting and Oberacker had always been supportive of the idea.
Because he has been on a quixotic quest to develop some property in his home district in the town of Maryland, Oberacker and I have often discussed the idea of a film studio there, off the interstate, about 60 miles from Albany and the thriving but film studio lacking Capital area film industry.
Long story short, after the election, my board asked me to solicit then Sen.-elect Oberacker and his business, Form Tech Solutions, Inc. I informed my bosses of the request and asked to be taken off of covering Oberacker as a state Senator. They agreed. I visited Form Tech’s Maryland offices in late November and sent a follow up request asking them to join us as a business partner for 2021. I am pretty sure Oberacker called me New Year’s Day to tell me Form Tech would join Film COOP as a business partner.
I informed my editor, and told Sen. Oberacker’s people he was under “LeCates rules” – since the C.J. Heilig Foundation helps fund Film COOP, I don’t directly cover Bill LeCates, even when I write about Bassett Healthcare Network – and life went on.
As I said, it isn’t ideal and there was and is tension there, especially right now when I am the only person on the editorial side of Iron String Press! However, my intention is to have someone else write the stories about Film COOP’s big donors ($1,000 or more is either a business partner or an “executive producer”) and our board members, who are listed on the Film COOP website.
I will note, with another election cycle coming up, that in addition to Oberacker, several of our small donors are also elected officials, including: town of Otsego Rep. Andrew Marietta, town of New Lisbon supervisor Ed Lentz, village of Cooperstown Trustee Jeanne Dewey, and town of Oneonta Rep. Andrew Stammel. Other than Oberacker, all of those politicians are Democrats. Two of my board members are also Democratic politicians, former Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz, who tried before me to start a film commission in Cooperstown, and Caitlin Ogden, who is running for county representative this year in District Three.
A lot of Republicans have been big supporters of the film office as well. I would not have stood up at a county board meeting to speak about the need for a film commission here if Rep. Ed Frazier Jr. had not made an off-handed remark at a meeting about the tax credits sending money to Hollywood. And after I spoke up to rebut Frazier, it was then Oneonta Rep. Len Carson Jr. who asked me, “what are you doing about it, Greg?”
Without the serendipity of Frazier’s misunderstanding the tax credits and Carson’s challenge, Film COOP might not exist. Frazier is running for re-election this year. Carson is now on Oneonta’s Common Council and is running for mayor of the city.
Former State Sen. Jim Seward has always been a supporter of the film office and continues to give advice, too.
We also belong to the New York Council of Nonprofits, where Marietta is a vice president. And a current candidate for Stammel’s seat on the county board, Michelle Caton, a Democrat running as a Republican, has been a frequent advisor to Film COOP via the Small Business Development Center.
As if that list wasn’t long enough, I am also a member of the Cooperstown Central School Booster Club and a board member at large of the Cooperstown Soccer Club. And, despite that, I am, as a parent, furious at the school system for its pandemic learning model and special education failures. Still, if the boys I was fortunate enough to help coach in travel soccer for years win a state championship in the next three years, I won’t be an unbiased observer.
However, that is a story for November, pandemic and soccer bounces willing.
In the meantime, I hope to tell a lot of other stories for, to and about Otsego County residents. I can’t promise how long this adventure will last, but I aim to make the most of the opportunity. I hope we can give you a good, trustworthy product, in all of our forms.
Thank you for helping us keep local newspapers and media alive.