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Cary Brunswick

September 4, 2010

Downtown vision finally beginning to take shape

Sixteen years after the closing of Bresee's Department Store left downtown Oneonta adrift without an identity, visions past and present appear to be melding into a vibrant landscape that blends the arts and a diversity of retailers.

And we apparently have enough people and organizations involved to bring that business landscape to life.

But at Tuesday's meeting of those with a stake in the future of downtown Oneonta, "going forward" clearly meant keeping both eyes on the rearview mirror and all the work that must be accomplished to complete projects already under way.

The meeting at Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center was sponsored by the downtown merchants group Main Street Oneonta, the city of Oneonta and the Otsego County Economic Development Office.

OK, most people seem to agree that it's time to move on and stop complaining about the community's new brand, "Life Enjoyed," and the money spent to get it. Fair enough, the die is cast.

With the numerous ways the new logo is being disseminated, it won't take long for most people to associate it with the community and all it has to offer, including an increasingly active downtown.

It is hard to disagree with Mayor Dick Miller and MSO President Rachel Jessup that the spring and summer months have been good for downtown, with new businesses sprouting and plenty of popular events drawing people to Main Street, including the new Fabulous First Fridays that focus on the business of the arts.

While there have been a few storefront signs taken down, the new retailers, new owners or those who plan to open soon represent the most positive signs in years that downtown is becoming a healthy place to do business.

Now, we just have to see if the new merchants have the longevity to stick it out through the slower winter months and beyond.

Business leaders clearly are hoping a downtown of diverse shops and retailers will be the best way to thrive and grow, and draw customers.

That's a different vision than the one that surfaced five-to-10 years ago, which saw downtown as developing into a center of the fine and performing arts.

Of course, diversity makes a lot of sense now that the arts have a foothold downtown with Foothills, the new Oneonta Theatre, the struggling Upper Catskill Community Council of the Arts and the numerous fine arts shops and galleries.

While there are a few snags still to be unraveled, there wasn't too much looking at the glass as half-empty at Tuesday's meeting.

The leadership and financial problems at UCCCA were shrugged off as temporary setbacks, the long-time-coming of the development of the former Bresee's block was explained as logistic and technical issues, and the million dollars-plus needed to complete the Foothills theater was a mere foam roadblock.

Optimism and cheerleading are important, no doubt, but must be tempered with realism _ in this case the reality that public funding is drying up and thus private money must be relied upon to fill the glass.

Fortunately, we have the example of the Oneonta Theatre, which was saved from oblivion and restored this year as a concert hall and theater without taxpayer-funded grants.

And the new owners, Jon Weiss and Thomas Cormier, knew how to do it right.

When they were ready to open, they scheduled an open house with numerous local acts and invited the community _ for free.

That may be one reason their concerts have had full houses and future ones probably will also.

Their success was not ignored at the meeting, with Miller praising Cormier for his vision and ability to create a success through hard work and free enterprise.

The challenge for the community is to duplicate that success down the street at Foothills. The mayor said one his priorities is to find a way to get the $1 million the performing arts center needs to complete its theater.

Miller said he didn't know where they would get the money, but it must be raised somehow.

The lively Rev. Kenneth Baldwin, a Foothills board member, enthusiastically recounted the vision of Foothills founder Peter Macris, who saw a downtown hotel (we now have the Clarion), Bresee's block development and the performing arts center as a triumvirate that would lead to a thriving downtown.

Throw in the Oneonta Theatre, and it is a credit to a community the size of Oneonta that such facilities exist downtown.

And when the Bresee's block project is complete, there may indeed be cause to stand back and observe a successful downtown.

Cary Brunswick of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

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