It has been nearly five years since I first chose to run for mayor. Not a day has gone by since that someone has not stopped me on the street; come up to me in a restaurant or supermarket; sent me an email; called me on the phone or even knocked on my door at home to ask what me what we are going to do about the following concerns:
• 53% of our property is off the tax rolls and our property taxes are too high;
• It is nearly impossible to find a decent affordable place to rent in this city;
• There are too many empty storefronts downtown and not enough local grocery stores;
• There is no one other than partying college students in our downtown on weekend nights;
• Homes in my neighborhood are not being properly maintained and are falling into disrepair.
These concerns are real and they are among the things that keep me up at night. There is no single solution. The remedy lies in a strategy comprised of steps both big and small. I am proud of the many steps taken by our Common Council, staff, residents, and businesses working together during the past four years.
We have assisted our local businesses with millions of dollars in grant funds while helping dozens of local entrepreneurs to start new ventures. Nearly 90% of the businesses we have helped start up during the past three years are still going strong.
We have strengthened our code and provided both our code office and police department with stronger tools to address the issues of property neglect and nuisance behaviors. We have helped dozens of families who have never owned their own home to become first-time home buyers and have helped many seniors and families, lacking in resources, to be able to keep their homes safe and up to code. And we have guided the initial planning and environmental study processes for the creation of good local jobs in our former D&H Railyard.
The above are all important steps. Taken together, they begin to have an impact and to make a real difference. Now, however, we are ready to take a big step. A step that will bring more people to patronize our local businesses. A step that will provide affordable, quality middle-income downtown housing and attract creative and innovative people, young and old. A step which will bring a business-oriented academic presence to our downtown with the Hartwick College Grain Innovation Center as part of their developing Institute for Sustainable Foods. And a step that will bring 24-hour adult vibrancy to our beautiful and walkable downtown. This step will be the new Lofts on Dietz Street — a project designed to provide much needed housing and make the most of the exceptional artistic talent we are so fortunate to have as part of our community.
Oneonta has a glorious past, as we all can certainly agree. We, however, live in a changing world and the past few decades have not been that kind to us. The decline of the railroad and farming industries has hurt Oneonta in particular while the growth of online shopping has upended retail in every community around the world. Today’s successful downtowns are no longer only about shopping. They are about 24-hour living, walkability, and experiences — good food, socializing with friends, community events, the arts, music and more. It is widely recognized and reported that today’s thriving small city downtowns have more arts and entertainment, more gathering spaces, more niche retail and more places to live. This last one is crucial. Successful downtowns have a strong residential base, which helps to sustain local businesses. Without that strong residential base, growth is likely to be limited.
Oneonta is a very unique and special place with our historic architecture, sense of community, two excellent colleges and beautiful natural environment. As previously stated, we certainly have a glorious past of which we can all be proud. Positioning ourselves to be a city for the future, however, will require hard work and a willingness to change. We have spent the past three years planning and studying — and now is the time for action. Our Downtown Improvement Fund will help update our existing local businesses and property owners. Our marketing campaign lets others know how unique we are. And the Lofts on Dietz will be a big step forward in bringing life and vibrancy to our downtown and in positioning us to be a city for the future.
Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.