Oneonta Mayor: City Working To 'Survive, Then Thrive' In 2021
Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig is set to deliver his State of the City address Tuesday night. It’s a busy time for the Otsego County city, with college students set to return in the coming days, a new police chief to hire, and ongoing concerns around COVID-19. Herzig, a Democrat, is now in his sixth year as mayor. He spoke with WAMC’s Jesse King.First and foremost: what is the state of the city?
You know, we've been through a tough year, just like everybody across the country, across the world has been. We had an initial shutdown in the spring, then followed by a large outbreak at SUNY Oneonta in the fall, and of course now, like everybody else, we're facing increasing numbers with the second wave. But despite that, I would have to say that the state of the city of Oneonta is one of strength, and one of resilience. We have come through this because the people of the city have come together to support one another and support our business community.
A lot of cities — and the state — are struggling with their budgets thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. How is Oneonta looking on that front?
We are struggling. As we all know, the federal government, to date, has failed to come through with any support for local governments. We are looking at a deficit this year in our budget of more than $2 million — for a city our size that is significant. We are doing our best not to eliminate staffing positions, not to lay anybody off or furlough them. But it's a challenge. And of course, the closing of SUNY [Oneonta] this past fall has resulted in a real hit to our business community, which means a great decrease in sales tax to the city. It means a decrease in sales of water, in sewer rates, in transportation services that we provide. We probably look at a loss of over a $1 million a year to the city municipality just as a result of the campus being closed.
In terms of addressing that deficit, what are some things that you guys are looking at?
Well we have looked at consolidation, a couple of areas where we thought we could consolidate positions. And these are probably areas where it may have made sense before COVID, but this has motivated us to act quicker than we would have in other ways. Unfortunately, we've had to dig into our reserves. We are very fortunate that we have had healthy reserves going into this crisis, and that's a tribute to the people who came before me. That has enabled us to get through without having significant layoffs. But when you have to spend your reserves, you put yourself at risk for the future.
Taking a look at the past year, one of the biggest stories coming out of Oneonta was, of course, the outbreak at SUNY Oneonta this past fall. What did the city learn from that outbreak?
That was clearly something that set us back, just when things were looking better, just when the business community could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel - it turned out, as they say, to be an oncoming train. But we have learned from that, and so has the college. We have a new sense of partnership between the city and SUNY Oneonta. We've established excellent lines of communication. And so we are going into this spring semester with a different approach.
The big challenge is not keeping students safe and healthy when they're on campus — the big challenge is what takes place off campus. Right now the college is working closely with the city, and [we're] doing everything we can to have good communications and consistent messaging and enforcement of activities that students participate in off campus. Not only in preventing negative behaviors, but also doing a better job of bringing students into greater involvement in constructive, positive activities as part of the community.
Besides the pandemic, what are some of the city's biggest challenges right now?
One of the biggest challenges that we are all facing is keeping our local businesses alive, and they've been through a year that nobody could have ever predicted or even imagined. Back in the early spring, I brought together a small group, about six people, who I thought could be good at coming up with some ideas on how we could support our local businesses. I asked two things: come up with some strategies, innovative strategies, to allow our local businesses to survive, and then keep in mind that, when COVID leaves and the doors open, there are going to be new opportunities. And let's start now working on strategies so that, when that happens, we can thrive.
The group embraced that, they named the initiative "Survive, Then Thrive." They recruited as many as five dozen additional people to create subcommittees. And out of that came hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants to our local businesses, marketing campaigns, eight weeks of Saturdays of outdoor dining and shopping, and a new list of priorities for the city of Oneonta to take advantage of the opportunities that will exist when the cloud of COVID lifts.
For 2021, what are some things you'd like to see the city tackle?
We have a full agenda of initiatives going forward in 2021. As you know, we were a first-round winner of Governor Cuomo's Downtown Revitalization Initiative — we are now seeing much of that come into fruition. We are working on a project to provide 64 unites of middle income affordable housing, along with artist lofts. We are working with Hartwick College to develop a downtown grain innovation center. This is a wonderful project that will provide local farmers, brewers, and bakers with research and testing services, while students receive real-life learning experiences. Tonight, at our council meeting, our council will be reviewing plans to build a new transit hub in our downtown, and to completely renovate our downtown parking garage. We are undertaking a waterfront revitalization planning initiative — you know, we have the Susquehanna River, which runs practically through our downtown, but yet it is not accessible. What a shame that is, it was cut off when I-88 was built. We are working with New York state and professional planners to see if we can change that, and allow the people of this city, visitors to the city, to access the river. Just think how wonder a riverwalk would be. We are working together with the Greater Oneonta Historical Society and the Friends of the Oneonta Theatre to try to save that historic jewel. It's also important for supporting the arts here in the city of Oneonta - and the economy. So we have many initiatives going forward where we believe that the city of Oneonta is going to be in a strong position, particularly as people are looking for smaller, lower density cities in light of the recent experience we've had with the pandemic.
The city of Oneonta consists of nearly 14,000 residents. SUNY Oneonta is expected to bring back about 25 percent of its campus population for the spring semester, starting later this week.