OSWEGO, NY – For Tom Gillen, Oswego is a blank canvas poised to become a masterpiece once again.
The incoming mayor would like to showcase all the area’s attributes coupled with its push for sustainable green technology in state and national publications.
“Highlight the renaissance of an old manufacturing 19th century city. We started as a major hub for commerce and transportation,” he told Oswego County Today. “We can be again. Nothing’s changed, we’re still located in the same place we have been. We are located in a very wonderful place.”
Oswego’s 2020 Comprehensive Vision Plan has laid out a map of where the city can be just a few years down the road.
“It’s not as hard as some people think it is,” he said. “I think most people get it. They know there are no easy solutions. If the problems we’re dealing with were simple, they’d have been fixed by now. The majority of people, I think, are pretty grounded and are looking for realistic teamwork goals. And, I think we have them in place. As the mayor of this community, I need to communicate that more effectively. Things are a lot easier when you tell people what to expect.”
He also expected a continued good working relationship with Albany.
“I have met (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo several times and he has a very strong connection with Oswego. I think that he sees, like a lot of people in Albany and New York City, Oswego as a potential for a great economic engine for the state of New York.”
The incoming mayor said he doesn’t have any hidden agenda and he hasn’t promised anybody any jobs.
“I think that’s very unique. My background in politics is limited, at least this kind of elected politics. I have lived in political environments my whole life – but not so much in a small city environment,” he noted.
“My policies are you have to work with everybody,” he said, adding, “The fact hat the city hasn’t been able to come together and solve its problems is kind of disheartening.”
“I do think the council that will be going in next term will be able to work together and get things accomplished that will benefit the entire city,” he continued. “Things were good, but we can make a better future. You can’t go back. That’s the reality. That was a time in America we won’t see again.”
Gillen said it is time to redesign the economy and firmly believes Oswego has the tools and the resources to do that.
“We can define what this city will be like in the next 100 years,” he said.
Oswego is in a fortunate position, he said.
“Unlike a lot of communities we have a lot of resources. It is just a question of how do you put them all together and what is the best way of going forward?” he pointed out. “We have history with places like the fort. We have advanced manufacturing with Novelis. We’ve got all this energy production. We’ve got history, culture, education; we’ve got so much.”
People are going to have to work where they live; the cost of commuting is going to continue to be cost-prohibitive, he added.
That is what makes the Port of Oswego Authority so attractive right now.
“To ship things in by water as opposed to put them on a tractor trailer and drive them to another city and put them on another tractor trailer and repeat that over and over doesn’t make sense anymore. We have the port, we have the rail system. Oswego should capitalize on those positives,” Gillen said. “I think we are sitting in a really good spot. There are a lot of good things going on, a lot of balls in play right now. People might say that it is about time. But these things have been in the works for years now. It takes a while to get the grant money and some of these programs going. We have to sustain them and initiate more programs.”
The Jewish Motorcycle Alliance is planning a “Ride To Remember” that will include a stop in the Port City in a year or two.
There is anywhere between 200 and 300 riders that take part in the Holocaust remembrance event.
“They have done this for years on end now. Three hundred riders with their significant others could mean more than 500 people visiting Oswego. If everybody spends $1,000 on food and lodging, multiple that by 300 or 500,” Gillen said.
The representatives who visited Oswego recently were really moved by Safe Haven and then fell in love with the lake and whole area, he added.
“We should really be promoting the heck out of our history (the fort, Safe Haven etc.) and culture,” he said. “If you build it they will come doesn’t work any more. You have to get out there and promote what you have. We need to start banging the drum louder so people really pay attention to us.”
There are other organizations looking at Oswego.
“We should be able to attract something here just about every weekend,” he said. “The potential is unbelievable. If we build the hotels, we can fill them up. Slowly but surely we’re getting there. Good things are going to happen.”
While he hopes to attract more fishermen to the Port City, he wants to entice others as well.
According to figures provided by the chamber, those who come to Oswego for cultural and educational reasons stay twice as long and spend twice as much as those who come for recreational fishing, he explained, adding, “So if you are putting together a marketing plan, you want to go after those people.”
Gillen has traveled all across the country. He says he likes it here and wanted to come back here and raise his family.
“It may sound funny but that’s how it is,” he said. “They turned out well, all my kids did. This is really a nice place to live. You get your money’s worth up here. We have so much natural beauty. If you want to live and I do mean ‘live’ in capital letters, this is as good a place as anywhere in the world.”
“To me, I think it’s a no-brainer. We have the ability to go out and market this community to people we want to market to. We’re going to be able to pick the kind of lifestyle we want to create. Some other communities have tried to do that – but not on the waterfront like Oswego has to offer,” he continued. “We’ve got to get people engaged in this community. It’s critical. People must participate.”
They say what is great about Oswego is the college, the lake and all that – but Gillen points out what is really great about Oswego is its people.
“I think that is a commodity that is very key and crucial to our future. There is just so much that is good. The only (bad/tough) thing I can think of is coordinating it all together, getting the communication, the transparency and participation. There are those who are going to expect lots of things. And, they have a right to expect that; hold the leadership’s feet to the flame. I’ll do the same to people. You want change? You’re going to have to participate in it, too!”
He hopes to reach the 6,000 or more Oswegonians who didn’t get out and vote in the recent election.
How do we get them involved? Good question, he admits.
“The turnout in the last election was actually a little better than I thought it would be. It’s pretty good for an off year and pretty good for a guy who nobody knew who he was,” he added.
“You sit around and come up with these great ideas and then a while later you say, ‘remember, we were going to do that?’ That is the scenario I want to avoid. And that is why participation and communication are so important. We can have the greatest ideas in the world, but nothing will get done if people don’t participate and follow through,” he continued. “If you don’t get more people involved in the process, no matter what you want to do, it won’t get done and people won’t be happy. But once you get them to take ownership and they say, ‘we did this together,’ people will be excited and want to keep going. This is an opportunity to really redefine this city.”
It’s not just all about the mayor and it’s not all about the Common Council, according to Gillen.
“It’s about the people who live here. You can’t just sit back and gripe – you have to realize that you are a part of the solution. If they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem and they don’t want to be part of the problem,” he said.
“I’m really excited about all of this. It’s part of the beginning of something wonderful. It’s going to be a long, hard climb. I know that. But, I think this is the real beginning. The people have decided they don’t want to go back, they want to move forward. It (the vote) was pretty powerful. It was loud and clear,” he said. “This isn’t a one-man army. This is a collective group of engaged people. They sent a message out there that they want to go forward. I like being the agent of change; at least being the leader of this group of people who want to really grow into the 21st century – that’s pretty cool.”