By JIM KEVLIN • The Freeman’s Journal & Hometown Oneonta
COOPERSTOWN – When Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky arrived a year ago, he was told not to bring natural gas to Cooperstown, he said to a Cooperstown audience Monday, April 9, in one of several “Town Hall” meetings he’s convening around the county.
Asked afterward who told him, he said the leadership of Otsego 2000, board President Nicole Dillingham and Executive Director Ellen Pope. “They advised me there would be strong opposition,” said Zakrevsky. “At the time, I took their advice.”
Dillingham disagreed, “We had a cordial meeting to discuss our work, and his work. We never told him what he could do. That’s absurd.”
Otsego Now is the county’s Industrial Development Agency; Otsego 2000 is the Cooperstown-based environmental group.
There are two options to serving Cooperstown with natural gas, Zakrevsky said in an interview the morning after the “Town Hall” – running a line from Oneonta’s NYSEG system; or the preferred option, running a line down Route 28 from Richfield Springs’ Tennessee line, which has a greater gas supply.
Abolish Otsego Now? Goodness. It’s Otsego County’s “single point of contact” on economic development, the locus of job-creating efforts.
Adrian Kuzminski, our creative and thought-provoking columnist, suggests such in the column on the opposite page. Read the column. But here’s an alternative idea.
How about abolishing Otsego 2000? It’s arguably the “single point of obstruction” to any economic development in Otsego County, evident most recently in the drive to stymie a
10-year effort to redevelop Oneonta’s vacant D&H railyards.
Here’s just one instance: A few years ago, Otsego 2000 successfully blocked the 160-turbine
Jordanville wind farm because the windmills would have degraded the “viewshed” from James Fenimore Cooper’s Glimmerglass.
The typical 1.5 MW wind turbine creates enough electricity to power 332 homes; 160 would have powered 53,120 homes, more than double the 23,921 homes in Otsego County.
Now, Otsego 2000 has dug in its heels on bringing any more natural gas to Otsego County. Zilch. Nada. Zero.
ONEONTA – At his first “Town Hall,” Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky last evening asked a Shineman Chapel full of Hartwick College student for ideas, including what might keep them here after graduation, and they told him:
How about turning the Oneonta area into a beacon for renewable energy, asked Will May, a freshman from Pittsburgh. Referring to the Green New Deal, he said, “We should be proving it is possible.”
Ahead of opening his Oneonta office on Thursday, Feb. 7, Congressman Antonio Delgado, D-19, met with members of Otsego County’s small business community at Hartwick College’s Shineman Chapel this afternoon. “I’m best equipped as your advocate when I have spoken to you” he told, seated from left, Michelle Catan, Small Business Development Center director; Jill Morgan-Meek, owner, Transitions Boutique; Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky, and developer Ed May. The discussion was hosted by the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce, and earlier that afternoon, Delgado spoke with the Leatherstocking Young Farmers. At right, Jason Tabor, Principal Financial Group of Cooperstown and President, Friends of Bassett, engages Delgado on his thoughts about solving the county’s housing crisis. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – Congressman Antonio Delgado, D-19, will open his office in the Otsego Now offices at 189 Main St. on Thursday, Feb. 7.
“Having an office in Oneonta was always going to be a key priority of mine. I’m very glad we’ll be opening the doors next week,” said Delgado. “Accessibility and transparency are key priorities of mine, and offices help ensure that we can make it as easy as possible for folks to share their views and get assistance with federal services.”
You may have noticed that Dec. 15 piece in the New York Times, “The Hard Truths of Trying to Save the ‘Rural’ Economy.” In it, reporter Eduardo Porter wrote: “I’ve lived most of my life in big cities. I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to live in a small town or a family farm, or how it feels when all the jobs in a community seem to be fading away.”
You might expect what follows: It sounds like one of those stories Times reporters periodically transmit from Timbuctoo or some similarly exotic locale. All impressions. As if rural economic development – the War on Poverty, if you will – is all about feelings.
Here’s a more concrete objection: Porter equates Upstate New York – criss-crossed by four lanes, peppered with international airports, abounding with excellent colleges and universities, a couple of hours from the largest metropolitan economy in the country that also happens to be the center of the financial universe – with Harrison, Neb., wherever that is.
ONEONTA – At the urging of Otsego 2000 and 40 people who showed up at its monthly meeting, the Oneonta Town Board last night unanimously voted to oppose a $3.5 million state grant application for a gas decompression station at Pony Farm.
“No member of the Town Board is in favor of the decompressor gas station,” declared Supervisor Bob Wood at the start of the meeting.
BENEFIT AUCTION – 5:30 p.m. Annual benefit for Greater Oneonta Historical Society features hundreds of items up for live, silent, bucket auctions. Kevin Herrick of Lettis Auction will be auctioneer. Quality Inn, 141 Courtyard Dr., Oneonta. 607-432-0960 or visit www.oneontahistory.org/upcomingevents.htm
This week’s Tom Morgan column on the facing page, and former DEC Commissioner Mike Zagata’s column last week capture the Upstate dilemma: Upstate is rebounding more slowly than any other area of the country.
First, let’s look at local bright spots.
• Custom Electronics in Oneonta is planning a futuristic 250-job production line making self-recharging batteries.
Andela Products, the Richfield Springs glass recycler, is likewise looking to expand. And Corning’s Oneonta plant is investing $11 million to ensure 150 jobs for the next 15 years.
• As or more important, as Spectrum dithers, Hartwick-based Otsego Electric Cooperative keeps expanding its broad-band ambitions, as the county Board of Representatives was told last month. The PT boat may outmaneuver the aircraft carrier.
• Even today, as the Otsego Chamber of Commerce and Senator Seward’s Workforce Summit was told last week, the challenge isn’t so much new jobs as finding people to fill existing jobs. RNs, code writers and CDL drivers can start tomorrow.
• What’s more, Hartwick College and SUNY Oneonta, Bassett and Fox Hospital, plus thriving Springbrook provide a solid economic base.
• To top it off, county Treasurer Allen Ruffles reports the county’s tax rate, thanks to vibrant tourism, is the lowest among the state’s 67 counties. It’s been low – but THE lowest!
All this is good. What’s lacking is a future: new and better kinds of jobs and salaries to keep our young people here and bring in new ones, and
a vision to get us there.
At that Workforce Summit – 80 people packed The Otesaga’s Fenimore Room Wednesday, Oct. 31 – the indefatigable Alan Cleinman, the Oneonta-based consultant to the national optometry sector, provided that vision:
“The future is knowledge-based industry” Cleinman declared. “The future is not industry.”
Knowledge workers: “software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and any other white-collar workers whose line of work requires the one to ‘think for a living,’” is how Wikepedia defines it.
In constant national travels, Cleinman has visited such boomtowns as Boise, Idaho, and Bozeman, Mont. – places truly in the middle of nowhere that embraced “knowledge-based industry” and are thriving.
He estimated Hartwick and SUNY Oneonta have 75,000 living graduates and create 1,500 new ones a year, many of whom would no doubt love to relive positive college experiences here and, while at it, make a living.
Cleinman’s idea is to collaborate with the colleges on a marketing campaign to bring some of these people back – a one-percent return is 750 professionals. And to raise
a $1 million venture-capital fund to help them do so.
Senator Seward immediately pledged to form a task force to pursue the “Come Home to Otsego County” campaign, plus a “Stay Home” campaign. Contacted later, Hartwick President Margaret Drugovich also expressed support.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the deepening of a county rift that could stop any forward movement short: economic developers versus no-gas, no-way, no-how adherents.
Otsego 2000, the formidable and well-funded Cooperstown-based environmental group, has laid the groundwork to sue Otsego Now’s economic developers and the City of Oneonta if plans for a gas-compression station goes forward.
A “knowledge economy” requires some energy – a million-square-foot office building would require 5,800 gallons of propane a day to heat, Otsego Now’s Jody Zakrevsky estimated – but considerably less than manufacturing.
No-gas, no-how may not be feasible. But a “knowledge economy” may allow a balanced energy strategy that is palatable all around.
Otsego 2000 President Nicole Dillingham herself expressed considerable interest in Cleinman’s idea.
If it and other environmental groups could move from always “no” to occasionally “yes,” that would be good all around.
In short, Cleinman’s right on.
Bozeman, Boise and other knowledge economies got where they are by embracing four qualities: ingenuity, educational resources, money and
quality of life, he said.
“We have them all in Otsego County,” the proud native son from Gilbertsville declared. “What better place to live than in this amazing county?”
What better place indeed? Fingers crossed. Let’s see where it goes.
Uncreative? With Full Plate,
That Might Be Just The Thing
‘I’m not creative,” Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky told the Otsego County Board of Representatives at its October meeting on the 3rd, as he began to deliver an “economic update” on the economic-development organization’s 2018 accomplishments.
While lacking creativity, Zakrevsky continued, he said he has the capacity to embrace someone else’s ideas and carry them to fruition.
Credit Zakrevsky with self-awareness and frankness, both virtues. Thinking about it further: The ability to carry great ideas forward may be just what’s needed right now in the local economic-development realm.
Zakrevsky’s predecessor, Sandy Mathes, was eminently creative; many of his initiatives are moving. Slow and steady implementation now might indeed win this race.
Among other things, Zakrevsky shared this very good news with the county board: Otsego Now has issued $11 million in bonds to Corning to expand its Life Sciences Plant in Oneonta; in return, the nation’s foremost glassmaker has committed to keeping 175 quality jobs in the city for at least 15 years.
Several other initiatives Zakrevsky shared with the county reps are important to pursue, such as a $750,000 grant sought toward Custom Electronics’ $2.2 million production line of futuristic self-recharging batteries. That’s 50 prospective jobs.
The batteries are used at disaster scenes, but also at movie shoots, to allow crew
to easily move sets when on location.
Of course, better batteries – in effect,
power storage – are essential as we shift
Another big challenge, of course, is moving forward redevelopment of Oneonta’s former D&H railyards; six site plans have been developed over the past few months. Also new, Otsego Now has gotten the state to designate a big chunk of the railyards as a new type of “opportunity zone,” providing tax breaks to prospective employers.
Also, Zakrevsky said, he is working with an unnamed “existing manufacturing company” on a 40,000-square-foot plant in the Oneonta Business Park (formerly Pony Farm) that promises to create 300 new jobs, with construction due to begin next year. He pointed out that 10 buildings in the park (only one owned by Otsego Now) are occupied, and only three available lots remain.
The Route 205 corridor through the Town of Oneonta is underway, necessary before the state DOT can upgrade that sometimes-congested stretch. And an airport study – Zakrevsky said consultants have promised its completion by Dec. 23 – may pave the way for county participation, as is proper, in what’s been a City of Oneonta facility.
There’s a lot more, including comprehensive master plan updates in Cooperstown, Richfield Springs and lately Schenevus.
Zakrevsky also heralded the creation, finally, of a one-stop shop for economic development in Otsego Now headquarters on the fifth floor of 189 Main, Oneonta.
Michelle Catan of the state Small Business Development Center has been joined in recent months by the Otsego County chamber; Southern Tier 8, the regional planning agency, and CADE, the Center for Agriculture, Development & Entrepreneurism.
If you remember, the keynoter at the second “Seward Summit” in November 2013, Dick Sheehy, manager/site selection, for CMH2Mhill, an international industrial recruiter, said a one-stop shop is an essential prerequisite to economic development.
Of course, putting loosely related entities on the same floor doesn’t, in itself, mean a one-stop shop exists. But at least proximity makes a tight, broad, comprehensive economic-development recruitment effort possible. Be still, beating hearts.
As we’re now all aware, if we’ve been paying attention, our county, from Greater Oneonta to Cooperstown, lacks sufficient natural gas and electricity even to meet current needs, much less recruit new employers, and Zakrevsky has become the lightning rod for that undertaking.
Otsego Now is seeking $3.5 million toward a natural gas decompression plant in Pony Farm, and its president has taken the brunt of criticism – and legal threats – from anti-gas adherents. He has to be unapologetically tough to keep that moving forward, and his board members need to get behind him publicly in a united front.
Regrettably, Sandy Mathes left too soon. But we have to move forward regardless.
From the railyards to Oneonta’s $14 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative (the state’s DRI) to the potential 300-job distribution center at Schenevus, another Mathes initiative, Mathes left Zakrevsky plenty to do.
To the degree that slow and steady wins the race, Zakrevsky, who is reaching retirement age within a few months, can do a lot. His report to the county Board of Representatives was, simply, promising. Amid fears economic-development had been set back a generation, there’s reason to believe our economic-development challenges can, to some degree, be met.
Let’s go for it!
It’s obvious we have to get off fossil fuels, yet we keep hearing that fossil fuels – natural gas in particular – are essential to local economic growth. While “solar and wind would be a viable source for electric,” Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky wrote in The Freemans Journal & Hometown Oneonta in the Aug. 30-31 editions, “it (the solar and wind source) does not currently provide a solution to companies that need extreme heat in processing.” For them, he tells us, natural gas is a necessity. Further, they are the companies he thinks we need for future economic growth.
Zakrevsky points out that two projects with potentially 475 jobs failed to materialize recently due to the lack of natural gas essential to their operation. That’s hardly surprising. Companies that can’t function without natural gas have been locating in places where adequate gas infrastructure already exists, and that is clearly not Oneonta.
Bringing more natural gas to Oneonta would cost a fortune: $17.5 million, Zakrevsky estimates, for a decompression station and related infrastructure. But many millions more would be needed to replace and expand the DeRuyter pipeline.
Why aren’t the local businesses who would benefit raising the money themselves? Perhaps it’s because no serious investor would fund a project importing natural gas when industry can locate far more cheaply elsewhere, where gas is abundantly available.
That’s as it should be. Natural-gas dependent industries ought to go to natural gas rather than spending more money to get natural gas to come to them. That’s economic efficiency.
Even then, there’s no guarantee businesses will come. Look at Richfield Springs in our own county. A surplus of natural gas hasn’t helped Richfield attract industry.
Yet Otsego Now seems bent on depleting the public purse to bring more gas to Oneonta, leaving citizens and consumers (taxpayers and ratepayers) to bear the costs of the project.
The few businesses involved, including NYSEG, would, whether they realize it or not, in effect be making a profit on the backs of the public. Yes, some jobs would be created, but they are unlikely to support whole families (few jobs today do).
Meantime, the public as a whole would be impoverished by having to pay for the project, arguably leading to less, not more, overall economic growth. And money invested in natural gas is money that is not invested in other job-creating industries – like renewables.Even worse, this project, which calls for a 25 percent increase in the amount of natural gas delivered to Oneonta, would re-enforce the
current, unnecessary use of natural gas
by residential and institutional
These consumers are not dependent upon natural gas for industrial processes requiring “extreme heat.” Non-polluting alternatives would serve them (and the climate) far better, and create jobs too. That should be the priority.
Yes, it’s true that our electricity supply is also constrained, but renewables can expand available electricity, which should be prioritized over gas.
And there’s the safety issue. Otsego county’s Public Safety Committee, to its credit, after several virtual pipeline gas truck rollovers, has called for the trucks to be taken off local roads.
Also, keep in mind, according to the New York Times (Sept. 14, 2018), “since 1998, at least 646 serious gas distribution episodes have occurred across the country, causing 221 deaths and leaving nearly a thousand people injured, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.”
The whole Otsego Now project is in effect a massive subsidy by the public for a polluting and unsafe industry which would better be located elsewhere. It’s time for local planners – and politicians like state Sen. Jim Seward – to abandon economically non-viable proposals for bringing more
fossil fuels to this area. In spite of its
history, Oneonta’s no longer the place for fossil-fuel dependent heavy industry.
The essential infrastructure we need – as I’ve argued in my last column – is state-of-the-art broadband for all, not obsolete gas pipelines for a few. Real internet would help give us a new economic base, which in turn would help finance sustainable local enterprises.
This is the vision that our economic planners should be pursuing, and for which they ought to be fighting to find money. Earlier this year, New York State announced $1.4 billion for 21 renewable energy projects, including 22 solar farms, three wind farms, and one hydroelectric project.
That’s the kind of money Otsego Now should be going after if it wants to invest in the future of Otsego County.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor, author and Sustainable Otsego co-founder and moderator, lives in Fly Creek.