Editor’s note: The following is part one of a multi-part series by former Oswego Mayor John Sullivan.

Thirty four years ago, my mayoral administration conceived a plan to broaden the appeal of Oswego beyond it being the Port City of Central New York.

We undertook the effort to cast the city’s image in a positive light by emphasizing the waterfront and created the slogan, “Oswego: Where the water never ends,” replete with a logo design and even a song for a promotional video.  

Signs at the entrances to the city welcoming visitors were changed from “Welcome to the Port City” to “Welcome to Oswego: Where the water never ends.“ Including in that effort was founding events like Harborfest which successfully put Oswego on the map in a very dramatic way. This shift in emphasis over the years has produced a windfall of revenue from tourism, as well as a positive image for the community.

Don’t get me wrong: Our port’s continued viability is still an important component in the city’s overall ambience, but it is not the be-all, end-all as once presumed.

That is, until lately.

The current Port of Oswego Authority Board of Directors and executive director have embarked on a vigorous program to revamp the port’s bulk loading and storage capabilities including construction of colossal new grain storage structures set to handle an assumed expansion in grain exports.

The assumptions of greatly expanded grain handling are, at this point, just that: assumptions. No hard contracts have been signed, and the port board seems to be operating on the continuing assumption of, “if we build it, they will come.” That assumption has not proven accurate in the past, and there is no additional basis to believe that it will be true in the future. Bringing back the past is not always the best bet for the future, but that is what we see from this current board and executive director. A broader vision of the port’s commercial viability is in order. The comprehensive plan the port recently adopted is neither comprehensive, nor a solidly viable plan. Other options should be considered beyond seeking greater bulk commodity traffic.

What about a car/passenger ferry to Kingston, Ontario? Why not consider roll-on, roll-off container cargo options? Why not look at other commercial harbor developments as possible road maps for Oswego, like the Baltimore Inner Harbor on a smaller scale? Why not think outside the box for a change?

We don’t have to sacrifice the historic viewshed of our port for success in Port operations. There are other options that should be considered. The unforeseen construction of a mega-storage shed, unnecessarily blocking views of the harbor, might just be the wake up call Oswego needs to change course and build an even brighter future.

As Oswego’s newly elected mayor in 1988, I organized an expedition my administration and the Common Council to visit the nearby Canadian port city of Kingston. My objective was to determine what they were doing right that we were doing wrong. Much of their grain silo storage had been demolished and replaced by high-rise waterfront condos for the migration of residents from Toronto and Montreal. Their waterfront and downtown was thriving, while Oswego was falling way behind in comparison.

The answer they gave was quite simple, yet profound: a plan that did not empower one single entity to control waterfront development was doomed to failure. One agency alone should have the power to set policy and further development; bifurcating waterfront development responsibilities did not work. That notion stuck with me, and after endeavoring to cooperate with the port during my first several years as mayor, I finally offered to “ buy” the port from the state. The administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo was not favorably inclined, and the idea went nowhere. Perhaps it is now time to revive the concept.

Historically, and pre-St. Lawrence Seaway development, the city controlled its own waterfront through the Harbor and Dock Commission. That ended in 1955 with state legislation creating the Port of Oswego Authority. Originally there were five board members, all appointed by the mayor. That changed in 1960 with amendments to the state legislation increasing the board to nine members, appointed by the governor instead of the mayor. Perhaps the time has come to reinstate local control.

Practically speaking, board members are appointed by the governor after he receives recommendations from the chairman of the local political party committee. Republican governors tend to appoint Republican members, while Democratic governors in turn tend to appoint fellow Democrats. The board hires an executive director to run the day-to day operations of the port. This set-up has at times caused political tensions between the city and state, depending on the political affiliations of the mayor and the governor. It is not an ideal situation.

Local input has replaced local control, and that has only been exacerbated by the appointment of several executive directors whose tenure proved short. One recent executive director resigned while under investigation by the state. The outcome in that case is still unclear.

The current Port of Oswego Authority Board of Directors has four vacancies, and lacks strong supervisory authority over the executive director. All of this has contributed to the current situation where decisions were made with little oversight, and input, to the point where the community was recently taken aback by the unanticipated construction of a grain storage silo whose height, location and even necessity are all matters in dispute.

See tomorrow’s Pall-Times for part 2

John L. Sullivan Jr. served as mayor of Oswego from 1988 to 1992. He is the author of several books on local lore, and in the past has regularly contributed a column to this newspaper.

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