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October 26, 2012

Board nixes Southside water plan

The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — A plan by Oneonta town officials to lure numerous new retail businesses to the Southside area along the Route 23 business district suffered a setback Thursday when Republicans on a key panel of Otsego County lawmakers rejected a request to chip in $90,000 towards the project.

Oneonta town Supervisor Robert Wood, a Democrat, and Republican board member Scott Gravelin told the Administration Committee of the Board of Representatives that “smart growth” will happen along Route 23 if the town succeeds in creating a new Southside water district.

Already, the area has 86 businesses that employ more than 1,500 people, said Wood

Those figures do not include the recently-opened Dick’s Sporting Goods store, the incoming Petco retail store nor the Courtyard by Marriott hotel that will be opening soon, he added.

Because the area is not serviced by a public water supply, it has discouraged other businesses from opening stores there, even though there has been significant interest in the area from developers, according to both Wood and Gravelin.

Wood, backed by county Rep. Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, argued it would be in the best interests of the county to “co-fund” the water district because the county would realize a major new stream of revenue once new stores set up shop along Route 23.

He cited numbers crunched by county Treasurer Dan Crowell that indicate the county will pick up an additional $100,000 a year in annual sales tax revenue from the new Dick’s store alone.

Wood said the town’s application for federal and state grants will be enhanced if it finds another governmental entity to signal its support of the $9 million project by providing co-funding. The $90,000 he asked the county to kick in represents just 1 percent of the total cost of the project, he noted.

But three of the five administration committee members — Reps. Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington, James Powers, R-Butternuts, and Edwin Frazier Jr., R-Unadilla — rejected the request. Murphy and Rep. Katherine

Stuligross, D-city of Oneonta, supported the request.

Schwerd, questioning whether the county would see any benefits from a big expansion at Southside, suggested that Murphy was simply out to feather the nest of his own town.

“You have an interest in this, Rich,” Schwerd said. “You represent the town of Oneonta.”

She also expressed dismay that the request for funding was coming at a time when county board members are attempting to trim various county programs in order to fill a sizeable budget gap and produce a balanced spending plan for 2013.

“I find it amazing that we’re drooling about giving the town of Oneonta $100,000,” Schwerd said.

Murphy responded that “preliminary numbers” indicate that the county would derive “a lot of revenue” from heightened sales tax collections as well as a potential stream of new bed tax revenue.

The Courtyard by Marriott on Route 23 is expected to open in the coming year, and other hotels could come to the area, Wood and Gravelin indicated.

“We’re being approached on a regular basis by people who want to see the development continue over there,” Wood said. He said it was unusual to have so much development so far in an area that lacks a public water supply, and warned the state Department of Health is expected to frown on any new application for well permits in the area.

“This is an opportunity to invest in your future,” Wood said.

Gravelin agreed, saying a developer involved in the Lowe’s store is interested in locating numerous new retail outlets in the area.

“People are interested, but they are just sort of being held back” by the lack of a public water supply, he said.

Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, who attended the meeting though he is not a member of the Administration Committee, also spoke in favor of acceding to the funding request. He argued that the retail sector in the Southside area holds promise to bring far more jobs to the region rather than “a factory that makes widgets that you’re never going to see.”

Frazier, after voting to deny the funding, said committee members were given insufficient time to review the request, which was not presented to them until they arrived for the meeting.

Wood, in an interview with The Daily Star, said the water would be drawn from an aquifer below the town-owned Fortin Park. That water supply has been tested and has been proven to have an abundance of high-quality water, he said.

The funding to create the water district would be sought from the state Environmental Facilities Corp., the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development office and the federal Appalachian Regional Council, he said.

The town has already committed $90,000 to the project and needs another government to back it in order to better position its application to the outside funding sources, Wood said.

Wood said he has not ruled out forming a partnership with Delaware County officials, noting Davenport Town Supervisor Dennis Valente has expressed interest in acquiring water from the town of Oneonta.

The current project area runs for about 2.5 miles along state Route 23, from Main Street to the town line, past Lowe’s, and includes Southside Drive, Wood said.

In addition to the town seeking another government entity to back the project, Wood said the town can increase its chances of winning grants by conducting a survey of residents to determine if the town should seek low-interest loans. That survey will begin this winter, he said.

“I’m a little disappointed the county board sort of took a short-sighted approach to it,” he said. Both he and Murphy said they would not give up on the effort to convince the county board to financially support the town’s water district plan.

County representatives have been occupied by trying to hatch a balanced budget for 2013. The new spending plan is expected to be enacted in early