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December 31, 2012

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

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.

It was reported in July that the civic center idea was in doubt. Not much was heard of the idea again until December 1977, when a “community center” was hoped to be built in the proposed downtown Oneonta shopping mall project on the former Broad Street, part of the urban renewal plan for the city. The mall plan never materialized, finally abandoned in the early 1980s.

The 1972 civic center idea wasn’t new. Back in 1940, the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce sought suggestions from Oneonta Star readers on how to make Oneonta a better place. An obscure idea, published on March 25 was for a “large auditorium with facilities for conventions in Oneonta because of its central location.”

In September 2000, when Orpheus Theatre founder Peter Macris announced his idea for a performing arts center on Market Street, on the old West-Nesbitt feed mill, it was state Sen. James L. Seward who made another announcement on Wednesday, Sept. 27, that a $250,000 state grant would make a “down payment for the center’s future design and construction program.”

While Mayor Lettis was appointing his civic center committee in January 1972, news broke that state Assemblyman Donald Mitchell decided not to seek re-election that fall. Several names for Mitchell’s replacement surfaced. David W. Brenner, then a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, and Albert S. Nader, a former Oneonta mayor, were among the contenders.

A newcomer, James L. Seward, 20, a very active member of the Otsego County Republican Committee and a legislative assistant to Assemblyman Mitchell, announced his candidacy on Feb. 3. Seward received the nomination to face Harold C. Luther of Herkimer County in the June primary.

Seward lost, but was very pleased with the number of votes he got.

“Considering this very young stage of my political career,” Seward said, “I don’t think the voters have heard the last of Jim Seward.”

Seward was elected to the state Senate in 1986, after serving as Milford Town Justice and on the legislative staff of state Sens. Charles Cook and Steven Riford, as well as state Assemblyman Peter Dokuchitz.

This weekend: Excitement in big numbers for the arrival of the new 1928 automobiles.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.