Gary Herzig:

On March 11, President Joseph Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which included $65 billion in direct aid to cities, towns and villages across this country.

ARPA represents a huge victory for cities like Oneonta, all of which have been working hard to help their residents overcome the physical, emotional and economic impacts experienced as a result of the COVID pandemic. Fortunately, ARPA recognizes the less obvious losses experienced by families, and especially children, by directing municipalities to consider serving their hardest-hit communities and families in ways that include promoting healthy environments. It also notes that “investments in parks, public plazas and other public outdoor recreation spaces may be responsive to the needs of disproportionately impacted communities by promoting healthier living environments and outdoor recreation and socialization."

While Oneonta’s parks have always been among our most valued jewels, their importance has become even more apparent during COVID. During our darkest days of the pandemic — when schools, gyms, businesses, restaurants and theaters were shut — our parks were open. For many adults and children, our parks became some of the few places available for healthy social interaction, recreation and exercise. Despite the important role our parks play in our lives, it is often hard for them to compete for funds in today’s tight budgets.

For that reason, I am proud that our city council has unanimously approved our use of our 2021 ARPA allocation, of approximately $700,000, to create new opportunities for Oneonta’s families to access healthy outdoor recreation with the balance of our $1.4 million allocation, to be received in 2022, to be used to support Oneonta’s ability to continue to provide reliable clean water to all our residents.

ARPA’s intent was never meant to replenish savings, pay off debt or increase the size of our budget. It is, instead, intended to have a real and noticeable positive impact on the lives of our citizens as they work to “build back better” in recovering from the pandemic. Here in Oneonta, we took this message to heart and developed an ARPA plan that would provide increased free access to healthy outdoor activities for all our residents. Included in the plan are the following projects:

Neahwa Park mill race paved pathway: With the support of the Future of Oneonta Foundation and the Oneonta Greenway Association, this paved trail will provide safe access through the entire length of Neahwa Park along the shore of the existing mill race creek. Designed as a first step in connecting the Greenway trail at Silas Lane to New Island, the new Mill Race Trail will be accessible to pedestrians, runners and those requiring wheelchairs. Benches will be provided along the way.

Neahwa Park performance stage: An often heard request for Neahwa Park has been a permanent stage that could serve as an amphitheater or bandstand and provide a home for outdoor theater and concerts. No name for this venue has yet to be determined; however, Oneontans have been heard asking for a stage to commemorate Jerry Jeff Walker, who grew up right here in Oneonta’s Sixth Ward. Walker passed away this year and I love the idea of our local musicians playing on a stage carrying his name.

Wilber Lake Trail bridge replacement: One of Oneonta’s best kept secrets is the beautiful trail that runs along the shores of Wilber Lake and is accessible from upper East Street. While outside of our city limits, this trail — used for hiking, skiing and fishing — is on city land as part of our water supply district. A short bridge providing full continuous access to both sides of the lake has been closed for years because of deterioration. A replacement bridge will once again complete the trail.

Neahwa Park electrical infrastructure improvement: Last year, First Night Oneonta showed creativity in providing a way for us to celebrate the new year during COVID with the Festival of Lights. To support such innovative uses of the park with greater safety and convenience, the electrical infrastructure will be updated.

Also included on our plan for Neahwa Park will be building a new basketball court, improving playgrounds, adding sidewalks, rehabilitating the skate park, and creating and installing public art. Planning for those improvements has already begun with completion of projects being staggered between 2022 and 2024.

Outdoor recreation is a big part of Oneonta’s quality of life. Continuously improving upon quality of life is one of local government’s primary responsibilities and the American Rescue Plan Act has provided us with this opportunity to do even more.

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

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