ONEONTA (WSKG) – Oneonta is trying to revitalize its downtown. They’re using state money to do it. Community leaders and residents are figuring out what makes Oneonta, Oneonta.
On a winter evening on Main Street, Joe Ficano readjusts the canvas tote bag on his shoulder that reads “Shop Small.” He’s an outgoing guy and sits on common council. He moved to the city 20 years ago when his wife got a job teaching economics at Hartwick College. But what drew him in was the downtown culture (and the tahini dressing at the Autumn Leaves Cafe).
Ficano and a handful of other city leaders are planning how to use $10 million. Last summer, the state awarded ten cities that much money to revitalize their downtowns.
“We don’t have to be job creators,” said Ficano. “We have to be place creators. Let’s keep an eye on the quality of life; make it a place people want to be. They’ll figure out what they want to do.”
Ficano is proud of the historic brick buildings, a strong arts scene and mountain bike trails. Oneonta’s Main Street is already bustling, which is part of why the state picked it. The colleges and small businesses could make it an economic hub in the Mohawk Valley.
City leaders and residents now have a chance to beef up strengths or tackle pressing needs or both.
One possibility is to start a revolving loan for small businesses, like the restaurant: Jamaican Creation Cuisine. It’s owned by Damion McIntyre who makes a killer curry chicken and plantains.
“It is tough to get your restaurant up and going, so a loan would be pretty good as small business,” said McIntyre.
He loves living in Oneonta and city leaders love people like him. They want to draw more young professionals to start up businesses.
Unlike many upstate cities, Oneonta was never a company town. It’s a college town – with Hartwick and SUNY Oneonta. It’s also small. The population sits at about 14,000, half of those are college students.
With many college students comes partying. According to Ficano, they use the parking garage to relieve themselves.
“It’s a huge bathroom for you to use. Outdoor bathroom. Maybe that’s an idea!” said Ficano. “Why don’t we get really progressive and get some outdoor urinals going on here.”
That’s actually not a bad idea, according to Susan Bradbury, professor of community planning at Iowa State University.
“I hate to say this, but putting public bathrooms downtown. That’s a big issue, especially if you’re going to have public functions downtown,” said Bradbury.
College towns need to integrate students into the city’s identity, she said.
“You’ve got your colleges there. They’re going to be there,” said Bradbury. “Maybe think about how, through aspects of design and providing certain kinds of facilities, [you] can actually help to diffuse the situation.”
The early proposal was impressive to Bradbury, in part because it’s designed for people at all income levels.
A couple of blocks away on Elm Street, at the Lord’s Table food pantry, Joyce Mason starts to prep the next hot meal.
“We’re sinners. We make burritos the way they should be made, not the way you get at what’s the name? Moe’s!”
The Lord’s Table receives a lot of support from the community, according to Mason. She and her volunteers serve dozens of people every day who can’t afford to live in this city, herself included.
“I had an apartment and it was over $700 a month,” said Mason. “It was difficult. I moved in with a family and we are sharing a house. And that’s what a lot of people are doing now.”
That’s a concern to city leaders, too. They say a third of Oneontans live below the poverty line and there isn’t enough housing. Councilman Ficano wants changes to the city to benefit everyone.
“I’m confident we’re going to get most of it right. It’s gonna be good,” said Ficano.
They have few weeks left to figure it out. The deadline for the proposal is this month.