Editor’s Note: This is the text of Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig’s 2019 State of the City address, delivered Tuesday, March 5, at the Foothills Performing Arts Center. He also announced $2.3 million in grants through the city/state Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
During the past year, some have questioned whether we have lost some of our momentum in revitalizing and reinventing the City of Oneonta. I want you to know that the answer to that is absolutely “no.”
We have been taking the time to go about this process the right way. We have engaged the entire community in the planning process, and we have been listening.
Literally, hundreds of people – residents; business and property owners; member of our boards and commissions; committee and focus group volunteers, our truly dedicated city staff, and our Common Council members – have participated and enthusiastically contributed their energy, their ideas and their aspirations to create a blueprint for a new Oneonta.
We have seen positive and passionate leadership from volunteers – creating a vision through participating in our:
• Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee
• Marketing Steering Committee
• Artspace Core Group
• Friends of the Oneonta Theater
• Friends of the Albert S. Nader Regional Airport
• Downtown Improvement Fund Project Selection Committee
And the list goes on and on.
Our colleges have been real partners and I want to thank both of our college presidents for actively embracing the goal of continuing to even better integrate our colleges into our community. And we will continue to work hand in hand to strengthen those partnerships.
We have listened carefully to different perspectives, sought expert guidance, and, most importantly, we have empowered the people of this city to be the decision makers.
Today, we are ready to begin the process of turning the corner from planning to implementation. And, I can confidently say to you that the State of the City of Oneonta is one of unprecedented Opportunity.
In the coming months, some of what we can expect to see will include:
• A proposal for a high-quality facility providing for a mix of affordable artists’ lofts and middle-income housing
• Proposed designs of a new downtown multi modal transit hub and Oneonta welcome center
• This spring, there will be designs for new downtown directory and welcome signs
• We will be developing a regional marketing campaign to let the world now just why Oneonta is a unique and special community that is moving forward.
• An exciting new design for the Westcott Lot will start to come together
• Our historic Damaschke field will be re-invented – yes, the old grandstand’s day has come after many glorious years of Oneonta baseball.
• And we have created a plan and are seeking funding to redesign Lettis Highway so that it is not only safe for pedestrians but also becomes a gateway that better communicates the character of the City of Oneonta.
All this is just the beginning. The Reinvention of Oneonta starts today with a new design for our downtown.
This will not be a design that was created in City Hall – but one created by each of our local business and property owners through our Downtown Improvement Fund – 2.3 million of our DRI dollars set aside just for this purpose.
Last fall, we issued an RFP inviting all downtown and business owners to apply for assistance in updating building facades, creating new signage, and developing quality market-rate housing.
Thanks, in part, to the support we received from the Otsego Chamber, Destination Oneonta, and Delaware Engineering, we were literally blown away by the response.
That so many were willing to invest their energy and resources in Oneonta is both heartening and very encouraging.
Vowing to keep the selection process out of the hands of politicians, I turned the job over to a committee of citizens chaired by former Mayor Kim Muller.
I am absolutely certain that they had no idea how much work they were taking on. They carried out the task with professionalism, passion, and objectivity. I cannot thank them adequately. (Here, the mayor introduced former mayor Kim Muller, who chaired the DRI committee, to say a few words.)
When I first met with the committee I asked them to view their assignment not as one of picking individual winners. But as an opportunity to use the submissions they received as tools to design a new downtown. Keeping in mind that there is only one big winner here: the people of the City of Oneonta.
The Committee recommended 63 awards. In a testament to the quality of their work, every one of their recommendations were upheld by the state’s review.
My congratulations – and thank you – to all those receiving awards tonight and to the entire City of Oneonta.
What else can we expect to see coming down the road for Oneonta?
First, I sincerely want to thank SUNY Oneonta and our volunteer Core Group for leading this initiative. I want to especially thank Colleen Brannan, assistant to the president, for the outstanding leadership she provided in exploring bringing an Art Space to downtown Oneonta.
A team from the national not-for-profit organization Artspace spent a week with us conducting a feasibility study for a downtown Oneonta facility which could provide some combination of affordable housing, studio, and gallery space. Their conclusion is best summarized with the following statement from their report:
“Oneonta is well-positioned to pursue an affordable live/work mixed-use facility for artists and creatives. With an underserved creative sector, alignment with community goals, and strong City leadership, the feasibility of moving a project forward is very positive.”
I can assure you that we are following through on this initiative. For a number of reasons, I believe we are better served by working with a private developer than we would be with a large not-for-profit. And you can be looking for just such a project proposal coming soon.
Oneonta’s grand old theater sits empty. It is a gem. And it can bring us entertainment, culture, and visitors. It has the potential to make a real economic impact on our City. But – there are challenges.
First, let me recognize and thank the Greater Oneonta Historical Society and Bob Brzozowski in particular. And the Friends of the Oneonta Theater and Patrice Macaluso in particular. With assistance from our DRI funding, they hired Duncan Webb, one of the leading experts in theater restoration and operation, to advise us on the feasibility of restoring and operating the Oneonta Theater.
His report told us that the market, the need, and the support are here. It outlined, for us, how a restored theater could be an economic driver for the City of Oneonta. They also outlined, for us, the challenges.
We now have cost estimates for different levels and concepts of restoration and a business plan for sustainability.
We also know that we have a very unique situation with two large theaters one block apart in a small city. The Foothills PAC and the Oneonta Theater cannot both survive by competing with each other. An innovative plan was presented outlining how they might work together as one. For the good of all, I encourage the dialogue to continue.
►market street redisign
We have now assembled the resources needed for a complete redesign of our Market Street- into an attractive Center of for the Arts, Entertainment, and Innovation; including:
A redesigned pedestrian-friendly streetscape.
The creation of a Multi-Modal Transit Hub and Oneonta Welcome Center
►our parking garage
The very first step in the process will be in deciding on the best location for the Transit Hub/Welcome Center. During the DRI Planning process it was proposed that it be integrated into our parking garage. Since that time, some have expressed concerns that there is not enough space to do it properly at that location. Others say it can work.
We are bringing in the experts to tell us if that location is optimal or if there is a better location. And at the same time, we will conduct a full engineering analysis of our parking garage prior to beginning the process of redesign and renovation.
Once the Transit Hub and Garage questions are answered, we can then begin the design process for a more attractive and functional streetscape. One that will be pedestrian friendly with connecting walkways between Main and Market streets.
Our Downtown Revitalization Plan called for the creation of a public plaza constructed over our parking lot, one which would also create a walkway – providing pedestrian connectivity to Market Street and running alongside the existing Ruffino’s building. Our plan also envisions a mixed-use building providing some upper floor quality housing.
Being announced tonight, will be a Downtown Improvement Fund award for an exciting transformative project – one designed to enhance this concept and leverage our DRI resources with our existing local businesses. Look for more details coming soon.
Oneonta’s original economy was built upon the D&H railyard. It was the good jobs created by the repair and maintenance shops that drew people to settle and build their homes in the City of Oneonta.
For many, many years now, there has been talk about seizing the opportunity to create good jobs which this unique location provides today, with:
• Access to rail and interstate
• Access to sewer and fresh water and public transportation
• All with a city workforce in need of good jobs
After decades of non-action, now I say thank you to the initiative and investment of the Otsego County IDA, which is allowing the possibility of real results to now begin to come into focus.
Oneonta remains a place where too many of our families are living below the poverty level. 28 percent of the people of our city live below the poverty level. It is likely that more than one in four of our children are living in poverty.
These are sobering facts. Facts which, unfortunately, can be too easy to ignore. We have families in need of decent jobs, and that is what this rail yard project is all about.
I suspect that not many of those who need these jobs will be here tonight to speak. They are likely too busy at this hour – with preparing dinner while juggling two jobs and searching for affordable childcare – all with family transportation that is dependent upon one less-than-reliable gas-guzzling vehicle.
I know that many of you are here tonight to speak about the railyard project and its potential environmental impacts. I do applaud you for being here and I do look forward to your comments. After all, we are in this together and I believe that we share in recognizing the need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, expedite our transition to renewals, and to provide the basic opportunities for a good life to all of our neighbors – just as many of us here tonight have enjoyed.
Our new Comprehensive Plan calls for developing the Oneonta railyard to bolster economic development in the city – to create jobs while also striving for maximum energy efficiency and maximum feasible use of renewable energy sources.
Our Comp Plan also calls for a community that values economic justice – meaning simply that we all share in opportunity and, when need be, we all share in sacrifice.
This railyard project must be viewed in context – not in isolation. As a community, our job is to establish priorities. Please – let’s not stand and say that there should be a moratorium on building a facility to create much needed jobs but look the other way while we go about enjoying our indoor tennis courts, gyms, swimming pools, and theaters – all heated with gas. These are not the values of the people of the City of Oneonta.
Instead, let’s roll up our sleeves and work together. I challenge all to volunteer your time and your expertise to help us to make this location a model of energy efficiency with a plan to eventually get to net zero.
Let’s not just talk about an Eco-Park – work with us to figure out just what that means and just how to make it happen. I know that there are good people here tonight who really care and I look forward to your constructive comments on how you can help us to be the best that we can be.
A few final words about our Comprehensive Plan – I, along with our Council, appointed a Steering Committee to oversee this process. They have worked for 18 months. They have held more than 10 open meetings, two public engagement sessions, numerous focus groups and have done quite a bit of homework. I want to say to them – Thank you!
They have drafted a vision statement which reflects upon what they heard.
It is built upon the words they heard from residents and business owners most often Words that include families, vibrancy, inclusive, housing, jobs, sustainable, inspiring and, even, groovy and quirky.
They have given us a vision – that of a vibrant, thriving community – known for its historic urban fabric, surrounding natural beauty, strong educational institutions, and a commitment to environmental awareness and responsible growth.
It is a vision of a small city that serves as a regional destination – with ample opportunities for jobs, housing, culture and recreation. And it is a community devoted to economic and social justice. One, where people work together towards creating a healthy, equitable, and sustainable future.
We have now arrived at a tipping point of Opportunity. It will only be by working together that we will succeed in taking it over the finish line. Doing so will require each of us to think community and not self-interest. There will also be a need to compromise. I know we have it in us to do so because I have seen the residents of Oneonta in action for the past 3 1/2 years. I have no doubt that we, working together, can reinvent ourselves so that we may thrive in today’s world. And I also have no doubt that we can do so without sacrificing the core values that have always made this a very special place to live, to work, and to visit.
In today’s fast changing world, standing still is really going backward. Now is a time of opportunity, innovation, and reinvention. Now is the time for us all to climb aboard and demonstrate that here in the City of Oneonta, “We’re Onta Something.”