Ken Kearney was a New York City firefighter in the 1970s — until he fell through the floor of a burning building in the South Bronx.

Unable to work again as a firefighter, he eventually decided to try his hand at real estate. Today, he and his son Sean have received multiple awards and considerable recognition for their construction and management of affordable artists’ lofts and top-quality middle-income apartments.

Peekskill’s Lofts on Main includes an internet cafe and spaces for dance, music and visual arts in a four-story Main Street building with 74 new loft-style one- and two-bedroom units.

At its grand opening, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul described Lofts on Main as "more than just a building — it is a recognition that painters, photographers, musicians and more enrich our society while driving tourism and economic vitality."

The Kearneys have an impressive background. In 2009, Ken Kearney was recognized as the “Hudson Valley Developer of the Year." In 2015, the Kearneys received the Alliance for Business Award for Excellence. They were the first developer in New York state to use the Middle-Income Housing Program and to combine it with artist housing. In addition, the Kearneys have made a commitment to sustainability by complying with the Green Building Initiative of New York State, The Energy Efficiency Initiative, and NYSERDA and LEED certification.

Last summer, I was introduced to the Kearneys by a mutual acquaintance. Sean came for a visit and we walked our downtown and discussed Oneonta’s challenges, assets and goals. Impressed with both his accomplishments and sense of community, I decided that the next step should be a firsthand look at their recently completed Lofts on Main in Peekskill.

I sent out invites for more than 30 people to join me on an all-day road trip to Peekskill. Ten brave individuals accepted my offer to sit on the hard seats of an Oneonta city bus for a three-hour ride to Peekskill. Included were leaders from our local business, not-for-profit and government sectors. Once there, we met with Ken and Sean, toured the apartments, spoke with artists/tenants and visited with local retail businesses.

The three-hour ride home — again on the hard seats of a city bus — seemed to pass much quicker. All spoke with enthusiasm about what they had seen and about the potential for a similar project to kickstart the revitalization of our downtown. Discussions revolved around the quality of the construction, the enthusiasm of the tenants, the support of the downtown retail businesses, and the first-floor gallery. All agreed with the sentiment that this was exactly the kind of development that would help Oneonta grow. Despite the enthusiasm, we all agreed that before moving forward, we needed to confirm the need and available resources to support such a project in Oneonta. We, therefore, did some homework.

A housing study conducted by an independent group, concluded that “A lack of newer, high-quality multifamily rental housing and a decreasing availability of affordable rental housing in the City of Oneonta created a need for additional, good quality mixed-income housing."

Our recently completed Comprehensive Plan documented the need to “create additional, good quality mixed-income housing within the City of Oneonta” and “to explore the feasibility of a new facility that would provide support to local artists with affordable live/work space."

A study conducted under the leadership of SUNY Oneonta, with the national organization named Art Space, concluded that, “Oneonta is well-positioned to pursue an affordable live/work mixed-use facility for artists and creatives," and “based on experience working in similar communities, Artspace believes Oneonta has the ability to support a 30+ unit mixed-use Artspace project."

And finally, a professional parking study conducted in the Fall of 2017 stated that, “There is currently a significant unused supply of public parking in the City of Oneonta. Even during peak times there are almost 500 public spaces available within a convenient walking distance to Main Street."

After a year of doing our homework and ongoing discussion with Ken and Sean, I am delighted that they have decided to try to bring their award-winning concept of downtown artists’ lofts and middle-income housing to Oneonta. This project has the potential to get the ball rolling in creating greater economic and cultural vibrancy. After all, more people means more customers and more employees for our local businesses.

Our challenges are real but this is a real step forward. Just one more way in which we can say that “Oneonta is 'onta' something."

Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at mayor@oneonta.ny.us