Gary Herzig: We are 'onta' something with biking trails

In advertising, it is said that most of us need to see something seven times before becoming fully aware of it. My wife, Connie, would likely say, in my case, 17 times might be more accurate. In retrospect, it did take me much longer than it should have to realize the potential economic and community impact that mountain biking holds for the City of The Hills.

That’s right, mountain biking!

Ed Lorenz, the owner and operator of Otsego Bicycles, on Water Street in Oneonta, is passionate and knowledgeable about all things bicycle. For several years, he has been trying to tell me about Oneonta trails, more than 40 miles of trails that can be accessed directly from our center city. He has been telling me we have trails for beginners, experts and all levels in between. He has been telling me individuals and families travel for hours to spend a day or a weekend mountain biking on our trails.

And finally last spring, Ed told me an organization called the New York State Chapter of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association would be holding a meet in Oneonta. He asked if I would stop by to check it out. So, on the morning of Sunday, May 19, I headed up to the starting line for the races, located at the Oneonta High School, expecting to see a few dozen bicyclists. Instead, I found 1,000 people, hundreds of bicycles and dozens of tents for teams and families who were enjoying the day.

NICA organizes meets for high school age mountain bikers all over New York. Our area was represented by a team called the Otsego Composite. It was there to compete with nearly 20 other teams from around the state.

Talking with the bicyclists, families, coaches and event organizers, the comments I heard included: “Oneonta has wonderful trails. We will definitely be back.” “We felt very welcome here. This is a great community.” “It is hard to find a city like this that has direct access to so many top-notch trails."

By the end of the day, I began to finally recognize Ed and the Oneonta Trail Association, whose volunteers build and maintain our trails, really were “onta” something.

Spending a few hours with Google, I found small cities and communities throughout the country in which mountain biking played a significant role in their revitalization. Nearly 50 years ago, the iron mining companies that were once the backbone of the economy of Crosby, Minnesota, pulled the plug and the community was left to die. Then the mountain bikers came. Local volunteers built a demo trail, which led to the creation of 25 miles of trails maintained by local volunteers. Today 25,000 cyclists a year ride the trails, adding an estimated $2 million to the local economy.

Fifteen new businesses have opened in Crosby since 2011. More importantly, many of the business were started by young people who moved to the area or chose to stay because they see potential in the trails.

Closer to home, Marienville, Pennsylvania, renovated a historic train depot in the heart of its downtown to serve as a hub that connects the city to several trails and positions the town as an outdoor recreation hub for the region.

After reviewing the long list of communities that have had an economic boost from a local network of trails, I decided it was time to see it for myself. So, on what felt like the hottest day of the year, I put on my helmet, borrowed a fat tire bike and followed Ed Lorenz to Oneonta’s New Island trail, a beginner’s trail Ed assured me I could handle. While the trail was not without its challenges, this 70-year old first-timer came back intact and smiling from a 90-minute ride through wilderness right here in the city.

We passed what remains of the berm for Electric Lake that once provided boating, fishing, swimming and electric power to the people of Oneonta. I was able to see views of the Susquehanna that never before could I access, and I experienced enough twists and turns, moguls, tree roots, rocks and trees to make it exciting.

While we know that mountain biking alone will not revitalize Oneonta, it certainly can be a factor. I dare say that as the City of The Hills, Oneonta may be “onta” something new and adventurous.

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

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