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Mark Simonson

December 31, 2012

1972 marked beginnings of 'civic center' and a political career

The year 2012 has been quite successful for big-name performers, and securing better acoustics for the Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center in Oneonta. The city had visions of such a center 40 years ago, and earlier. That same year a future state legislator, who helped secure funds for Foothills in more recent years, made his first run for office.

“A special committee will soon be appointed to investigate the possibility of building a civic-cultural center in Oneonta,” it was reported in The Oneonta Star of Jan. 18, 1972. “Mayor James Lettis said he will appoint the committee, made up of representatives from all phases of community life, after he and the Common Council met with representatives of the Upper Catskill Community Council of the Arts last night.” This organization is known today as the Community Arts Network of Oneonta.

Dr. Charles Hunt, honorary president of the arts council, had proposed such a center in recent months, and called upon a $200,000 bequest to the city from Walter Ford to help finance it.

Most Common Council members appeared open to the idea. Several proposed sites for this center were presented. One was on the site of the Wilber Mansion, while others included a section of Huntington Park or above part of the Dietz Street parking lot.

“However, the most unusual site suggestion came from Third Ward Alderman Lionel E. Guenette, who suggested a civic center could possibly be built above the proposed city parking garage along Chestnut Street Extension and Market Street.”

Features of the proposed center were much like what continues to evolve across the street from the parking garage at Foothills today, such as several hundred seats in a large auditorium and accommodations for activities of a non-artistic nature.

Mayor Lettis had speculated that the present day city hall, 258 Main St., could be used for the civic center. It was once a post office building. The Common Council eventually decided to purchase the old post office for use as a new city hall from the Oneonta Urban Renewal Agency. The city agreed to rehabilitate the old building as part of the $24,000 purchase price. The rehabilitation funding was to come from the Walter Ford bequest.

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Mark Simonson

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