One would like to believe that Cooperstown, once referred to as “America’s Favorite Hometown,” is a thriving, dynamic community.
A walk down Main Street in July or August, with crowds of people swarming the streets and shops, would suggest that it is indeed as billed. The same walk in January or February, with darkened, shuttered store fronts and empty parking spaces, would offer a very different impression.
When the remarkable increase in the country’s taste for baseball and its memorabilia in the late ’80s and ’90s dramatically altered Cooperstown’s Main Street, with baseball-themed shops largely established and managed by non-local proprietors replacing the mixed-use, community-based businesses run by local residents for 200 years, Cooperstown’s business district turned a very unfortunate corner.
With the advent of the “Cooperstown” baseball camps, located in Hartwick and Oneonta, people began to buy, convert and even build area housing to cash in on an extremely lucrative weekly summer rental market. That housing is in many cases owned by non-local, absentee landlords who make enough of a killing in the summer to allow them to sit vacant for the long off-season months. In a few years, the availability of housing in and around the Village became as hopeless as a Main Street parking space in summer.
As Cooperstown essentially transformed from a community of locals to a community of tourists and profiteers, where local needs could not be fulfilled in the business district and the village proper and housing opportunities evaporated, so did the village population. From a 20th-century high of 2,909 residents in 1930, the population of Cooperstown has dropped by nearly 40% to 1,738 during the 90 years since. This loss is not the result of people of means deserting the stately homes of Cooperstown, which are still largely occupied. To the contrary, it is professional and working people who have been squeezed out with an average loss of over 7% of this group in each decade since the baseball angle went into overdrive and spearheaded the complete decimation of rental housing across the county.
These are not statistics that suggest a thriving community; Cooperstown residents and their elected officials on the Village Board of Trustees grew increasingly alarmed. In 2007 the Trustees commissioned a study by the Notre Dame School of Architecture to lay out a plan for addressing the Village’s challenges and, in 2016, created the Village of Cooperstown Comprehensive Plan and Downtown Revitalization Strategy. During the public engagement process, residents stated that “one of the biggest challenges facing Cooperstown residents is the lack of market-rate workforce housing, year-round rental properties, and housing for seniors.”
Both the Notre Dame study and the Comprehensive Plan concurred: the near absence of year-long rental housing for professional and working people was a root cause of the Village’s discontent.
The Notre Dame study posited that “if the housing problem is properly addressed, the retail problem will also begin to be addressed.There is no solution to the problem of well-built, comfortable and affordable housing in a desirable place short of small dwelling units and developer subsidy.” It went on to declare that the Village must “create housing in Cooperstown that can be afforded by nurses, teachers, tradesmen and women, museum employees, small-business owners and others, in the form of cottages, bungalow courts, row-houses and carriage houses within a mixed-use walkable network of streets and blocks near both Main Street and Bassett Hospital.”
Let us pause here to consider how all this is relevant to this particular moment in time. There is currently a proposal before the Village Trustees to construct a 13-unit, state-of -the-art “green” apartment building at 10 Chestnut Street offering year-long leases on units of varying sizes for a total of 21 bedrooms. The site of the proposed building has been a commercial use for generations but has been largely abandoned and derelict for the past 30 years. It is a project that has been meticulously planned and carefully designed to have minimal impact on neighboring properties in an area that is largely defined by commercial and hospitality uses. Of the 11 structures on this section of the street, five of the structures house seven commercial uses, including an inn that was converted from an apartment building that had offered roughly the same residential capacity as the current proposal. Importantly, it is also the project of two local community-minded residents whose own distress at the lack of affordable housing for the professional staff of their respective local businesses and institutions prompted them to take on this arguably benevolent and forward-thinking project at a time when such a project is so widely endorsed and desperately needed. What more could one hope for that property and this village?
While some may argue with our belief that the project is, indeed, widely endorsed, a brief return to the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the village about five years ago might be helpful.
The plan states:
“When no specific site is considered, the villagers who responded to the survey cited several ‘needs’ for the village,” which is a near-perfect checklist for the current proposal.
To compare, here are the proposals and an indication of if the proposed Cooperstown Crossing development meets those proposals from five-years ago.
1) “Affordable year-round housing needed” (check);
2) “Lack of long-term leases” (check);
3) “Need for senior housing” (check);
4) “Apartments” (check);
5) “Universal design or aging in place housing” (check, check);
6) “Make Cooperstown a village for residents again!” In addition, to giving that last one a check, we add, “Amen.”
The Cooperstown Board of Trustees has done their homework over the years and devoted considerable thought, time, effort and funding to tackle the scarcity of long-term housing for professional and working families. It has proven time and again that the village recognizes the critical importance of adequate residential opportunities that would serve to revitalize and reinvigorate the community dynamic that had characterized Cooperstown for two centuries but has now been largely drained away.
It is our opinion that the Cooperstown Trustees must now follow their commitment to professional, year-round housing as so clearly and loudly stated in numerous comprehensive studies and plans over the years, as it is disingenuous at best to continuously say “no” to caring and concerned local people who are willing and able to honor and fulfill that commitment and, in doing so, enrich the community as a whole.
If not here, where? If not now, when?
We have faith in the developers and the village committees to iron out the details. However, we believe this project needs to be approved to move forward.