Gary Herzig: Reinvention necessary for growth

Looking back, how many times have you reinvented yourself? Most of us have at least once.

For me it has been multiple times. Since graduating from Queens College, I have been a New York City cab driver, a beer vendor for the New York Jets — yes, I was there for the 1969 Broadway Joe / Super Bowl season; an inner-city junior high school science teacher; a green energy (before that term was coined) heating contractor; the director of the Oneonta Job Corps Center; the chief operating officer of Opportunities for Otsego; and now — in my most challenging and rewarding role — Oneonta’s mayor.

My personal reinventions have followed the same trajectory as many of us — going from a son to a husband and father, and now to a senior citizen.

Whether brought about by circumstances out of one’s control, or by an internal desire to grow in a different direction, reinvention is often necessary for any individual, business, organization or community to be able to thrive in a changing world. This was the message I heard from Nadya Zhexembayeva, a 2001 graduate of Hartwick College.

Nadya came to Hartwick College from Kazakhstan on a Freedom Support Act scholarship. She arrived, with $400 in her pocket, knowing very little English. Today, as a consultant, she has helped companies such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Cisco, L’Oreal and Dannon to thrive in today’s changing world by reinventing both their products and their business models. Nadya attributes her fascination with reinvention to her teenage years growing up in Kazakhstan. When the Soviet Union dissolved overnight, it left her society in shambles with no currency, constitution, police or regulations. She saw firsthand how some panicked while others saw an opportunity for reinvention.

Last week, as I participated in the Otsego Chamber’s Entrepreneurial Award Ceremony, Nadya’s message came back to me. The Chamber recognized Helios Care with its Breakthrough Award, in recognition of their transformation from Catskill Area Hospice and Palliative Care. Leading a long established and highly respected organization, CEO Dan Ayres recognized that Hospice would need to be reinvented if it was to thrive in tomorrow’s changing world. Helios was built upon the organization’s reputation for providing caring support by expanding their care in terms of both geography and services. The name change “allows us to introduce ourselves to patients earlier in the disease process, because it’s not related to the stigma of the word hospice,” explained Dan Ayres, “Helios Care has also reduced its overhead costs, consolidated from six buildings to one and put more of its expenses into direct caregivers.”

While Helios’ reinvention was built upon long-term planning and careful analysis, the reinvention of the evening’s recipient of the Small Business of the Year award was born out of necessity. Rick Bennett worked in housing construction and lost his job when the 2008 recession hit. His wife, Laura, encouraged him to see this not as a setback but as an opportunity — an opportunity to pursue his dream of owning his own winery. Two years later, Rustic Ridge Winery opened its doors on the land that had been his parents’ dairy farm in Burlington Flats. Today Rustic Ridge is a popular stop along the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, with Rick, who has never been happier, having turned a difficult situation into an opportunity to reinvent himself.

As the evening ended, I thought of Nadya Zexhembayeva, Rick Bennett and Dan Ayres. These individuals recognized that changing circumstances beyond their control could be seen as opportunities for reinvention. Nadya, Rick and Dan also provided me with a renewed sense of optimism for Otsego County and the city of Oneonta.

Here in Oneonta, our past identity and economy were based upon the railroad and the surrounding dairy farms. People of different nationalities migrated to Oneonta to work in the D&H Railyard and, in doing so, built a community. Dairy farmers, their families, and their workers would come to Oneonta to shop, secure supplies and buy and sell livestock at auction. As the railroad and the dairy farms are no longer the backbone of our economy, our future now depends upon having visionaries like Nadya, Rick and Dan.

With our fine colleges, historic downtown, vibrant arts community and surrounding natural beauty, Oneonta is well positioned to be a thriving small city of the future. With vision, a desire to succeed, and a willingness to change, the time is now to build upon our strengths in reinventing Oneonta. In a fast changing world, communities unable to reinvent often do get left behind. 

Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at 


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