I’ve been thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that so many people are not going to be able to see their loved ones due to the pandemic and the reported increase in COVID-19 cases in our communities. I was reminded of how thankful I am for the people I care about and won’t be able to see, as I know many of you are.
Among those people missed that we at PPL are thankful for are the wonderful patrons and friends of the library.
For a little while now some of us PPL staffers have been thinking about you all, about how we miss having the doors open to the community, and how much we miss seeing each of you walking through those doors, roaming the aisles, perusing books and movies, reading the newspapers and magazines, browsing the web, or just hanging out.
We miss it, and I say this as a fella who, at the time the library closed its doors to this pandemic, was one of you: a then-reporter who would use the library as an office and would consume as many Kurt Vonnegut books (print and audio) as possible.
Since the time the doors closed in March, the world (and our interior) has continued to go through drastic changes. We think about those changes every day, and have been hearing from many of you: hearing about what you have been missing about the library during this time, about your memories of first experiences here, what brings you back, the people you would meet on Sundays to swap sections of the Watertown Daily Times (I might be a little biased, but I really love hearing that, as a former Times reporter).
These stories mean a lot to us, and by the fact that you are sharing them with us, we know they mean a lot to you. I had been talking with your faithful library director, Annie Davey, about these stories and she shared hers with me. The library brought her back to her hometown all the way from Denver, and as I am tapping into my years as a journalist and applying them however I can to this new role as the Adult Program Coordinator at the library, I started asking some of you to tell me your stories so that I can share them with the community.
Here begins the People of PPL edition of my A View From the Third Floor blog: Your stories, memories, anecdotes, the things you miss most about the Potsdam Public Library during this time of “Rona & Renovation.” We are asking you to send them along (500-1,000 words with a portrait) so we can share them with your library community. You already know each other, but, in some cases, you haven’t been introduced. Such was the case with one woman who talked about a group of patrons she would trade sections of the newspaper with: “Oh, Chris was great . . . I don’t know that I know his last name, we just happened to be at the library at the same time.”
Now you can get to see each other and share stories again, just in a bit of a different medium, as a placeholder until we can commiserate inside the library together again.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to include a photo so we can see your smiling face again in whatever environment makes you happiest.
During my years as a news reporter I had the opportunity to write about the Potsdam Recreation Department (also known as Rec) and what it offers to its community. Rec Director Trey Smutz has been dedicated to his work there and gives as much of himself to the community as possible. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that he and assistant Derek Greene really are the “department.”
When I left the paper in June and took this job at PPL, I was immediately asked by Potsdam Town Board Member Sarah Lister if I would be interested in joining the Recreation Committee, and I jumped at the opportunity . . . In fact, I think I said, “yes,” before she finished asking the question.
A big part of that ask was the interest in developing adult programming for Rec, as many of the programs and events usually involve youth, with hockey and figure skating in the winter months and the camp-style summer rec program.
Naturally, as Trey and I got together, the gears started going: What resources are available for adults through rec? How can we promote the department outside the Pine Street Arena as well as in? How do we create programming that adheres to the safety procedures surrounding this wretched pandemic, as it obviously has people at a distance from one another and has limited programming of all sorts?
While we work on addressing some of these questions and are putting together programming, we want to hear from you, our community, about what adult programs you would like to see. Some of you have already pitched ideas that both Trey and I have been talking about (like pickleball and fly fishing) which made us feel confident we were on the right path.
Below I have written up my recent interview with Trey, about our steps ahead in new programming, about how the pandemic has impacted Rec, and about how it will shape it going forward.
So get the latest on your Potsdam community below and give Trey and me your feedback on what you want to see for programming and let’s have a conversation.
And, straight from the start, I’m glad to be here!
Your Adult Program Coordinator,
William “W.T.” Eckert
POTSDAM – The pandemic has been a trying time for everyone, including Potsdam Recreation Department Director Trey Smutz.
Sitting inside the echoing walls of the Pine Street Arena, Trey took a break from removing the puck marks from the boards along the side of the currently ice-free rink to talk about adult program ideas in partnership with the Potsdam Public Library.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked with Trey about adult programming. Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed programs like free kayak and paddle board rentals during the summer months, nature hikes and bocce ball leagues, and snowshoeing or cross country skiing trips.
Amid the many goals we are trying to reach through this partnership is to provide not just a link between literacy and the natural resources through ideas such as borrowing a certain type of book from the library and getting a free rental from Rec or by sharing resources, like keeping rentable snowshoes at the library as well as at Pine Street Arena, but to also show that the Rec Department does more than cater to the youth in the area.
“We definitely want to support our supporters,” Trey said of the partnership with the library. “So if we are in a relationship or have something good going with the library, we want to funnel as many people to the library that they are trying to funnel here.”
A Pandemic-altered Rec Department
Trey has talked with me and local officials, at length, about the changes the Rec Department has had to face since the pandemic shut down communities and isolated people from group activities, including the possibility that there will be no open skating at the arena until 2021.
Summer programming was also shut down and the beaches were delayed in their opening and had to close earlier than expected. The pandemic also prevented other events from being held after the ice was taken out of the rink, like the Potsdam Humane Society’s Strut Your Mutt and the Brew-Ha-Hops Craft Brew & Cider show hosted by the At The Arc Jefferson – St. Lawrence for The Foundation of St. Lawrence NYSARC.
The spring events, when the ice is out and the compressors are off, supplement some of the arena’s downtime, he said, making the timing of the pandemic even more trying for the Rec Department.
“We could set up tables and chairs and we can provide different activities for community members that might not necessarily be here when the ice is in and it’s freezing cold,” he said. “So having lost that extra revenue there, it was just a waiting game to see how we were going to turn this Summer Rec Program into something that is viable amidst these concerns.”
It was ultimately determined that holding the summer program would have been too much of a risk, especially with the frequently shared equipment threatening to spread the virus.
“So it was a really hard decision not to be able to do summer rec and have those kids come here like they have every year, and certainly it was difficult trying to get the beaches open and adhering to the guidelines of the governor’s office, or county legislators, or wherever it may be coming from,” he said. “It was just kind of an unknown. It was something that everyone was dealing with while everyone still wanted to be active and live their healthy lifestyle, so we understood that.”
Moreover, plans to update the parks were put on hold. Trey said this means things like new grills, picnic tables, and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playground equipment will be added to the playground areas next year.
There was guidance from the St. Lawrence County Health Department during the changing guidelines in the early stages of the virus pandemic, Trey said.
“It was actually nice working with them because I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult but they kind of laid out, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that if you are opening your beaches and parks,’” he said he was advised. “And what most people don’t realize is that technically when someone was here, at the park or at the playground, if they had used a picnic table or if they went on a swing, our staff was advised to wipe that down or sanitize after every use.”
That led to an extension in hours for Trey and his staff. He said his staff would work from 8 AM to 4 PM and he would have to cover evenings to be sure safety measures were enforced if anyone came back to the park, including making sure someone was watching bathrooms so that it was being used by one person at a time, and then sanitizing it after each use.
All of that was a challenge when you are trying to get other work done in the arena or trying to make up for lost time for other plans or projects.
So how does the pandemic and all the regulations regarding social distancing shape the Rec Department, going into the long, north country winter?
Trey said that depends on how the school shapes up during its opening weeks, including how they interact with kids sharing transportation. With Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam not making ice time available to the community as they will not be open to the public, at least not for the remainder of 2020, that creates an opportunity for Potsdam Rec to rent out ice time that was previously undesirable.
But that doesn’t come without precaution and concern about the public usage of the arena. Trey said plans for coping with the policies for social distancing are in the process of being mapped out for youth hockey and figure skating at Pine Street Arena.
When junior hockey teams or the figure skating clubs use the ice it is less of a concern, Trey said, as it is scheduled, unlike when there is public skating or public events, where he has to be concerned about anybody from the public getting sick or coming in to contact with someone who might not have quarantined.
“So the issue we are really looking at is, how do we monitor, how do we record keep those individuals coming in for public times?” Trey asked. “And as for the ice schedule, I don’t believe we are going to have any public sessions, at least to start off. We can still try to schedule some adult skating, but it would have to be on a registration basis so we know who would be coming into the arena as much as possible.
“I think when we first open, and we target to open in the beginning of October, that you are going to see primary use from junior hockey and figure skating associations,” Trey added. “So we know who is coming through the doors (and) what groups and what teams are in the vicinity during each specific time.”
All the restrictions and the slow open to the public is not for the benefit of the Rec Department, Trey said. With things like potential pre-registration for open skating, it is to benefit to anyone from outside Potsdam who may travel 15-20 minutes in a bad snowstorm to find the limit of skaters allowed on the ice has been reached.
He said he doesn’t want to turn people away, so he is also considering shortening the open skating to two 30-minute sessions instead of a full hour, so the first 30 minutes a group of 20 to 30 adults could go out and then after the first 30 minutes is up a new wave of people can get out there.
“We certainly want to make sure it is fair and just for everybody that wants to access here,” Trey said. “We will certainly have our own rules policies about masks or if it is beneficial to have gloves here and things like that, but we will certainly have certain designated areas in the arena.”
Growth and partnership despite the pandemic
But while that is being sorted out Trey and I have been talking about what we can do to create a program that takes advantage of not just the resources the arena and beaches have to offer but the natural resources in our surrounding area that can benefit adult programming.
This is all a part of the new partnership between the Potsdam Public Library and the Potsdam Recreation Department. As I have previously mentioned, I have been looking for ways to take the library outside the library walls and get into the community, such a partnership with the Rec Department not only does that, but also advocates for active and healthier living and creates activities for adults.
The first of such programs, a pair of history and nature walks along the Red Sandstone Trail and Sugar Island in partnership with the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, is being held the weekend of Oct. 10 and 11. More information on that event and the Laurentian Chapter can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/2658283707770587/
Trey and I have also been talking about snowshoeing expeditions that would start off with a few 101 classes about snowshoeing. Those classes would likely be held on the fields behind the arena this winter and will be ironed out closer to the dates of the events.
Currently the Rec Department has 33 pairs of snowshoes to rent for such events with sizes that range from children 60 pounds or less to adults 200 pounds and up, though the 101 classes would be free to the public with a limited class size that would require registration.
Snowshoe rentals range from free on-site usage to off-site day rental: $5/day per pair for adults, free for children; off-site day rental – group 4+: $20; and off-site weekend rentals also available, with a price to be determined.
These assets and resources have not been utilized as much as they could be, Trey said, and he has embraced the partnership with the library to help foster growth in the Rec Department as well as reaching out to the adults in the community.
“It’s certainly just, not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, but to find those programs or find those partners in the community that are willing to maybe contribute coming up with a solution (to cater to the adults in our community), like maybe we have pickleball next year, working on creating revenue to generate stuff for programs like that,” Trey said. “It is something (pickleball) that I know there was a lot of discussion of before I started as director. I certainly know a few individuals who are over at the SUNY Potsdam courts early in the morning and getting their workout in and there are some really experienced players over there, too, who, if there were more courts or more opportunities to play, I think a league or something bigger could come of that.”
Currently, the Rec Department has the main posts and netting for a pickleball court. Paddles would need to be purchased, which Trey said were pretty inexpensive. It is now just a matter of where to safely create a court to protect against traffic, as it is being considered for the corner of the Pine Street Arena parking lot, near the playground, as well as figuring out the cost to create and maintain it.
“So it is really just thinking about how much money is it going to take to pave the new court and then how are we going to sustain the upkeep of that court during that time with the weather conditions in this area,” he said.
But in the meantime, Trey and I are working on programs or lessons to get community members involved to make them knowledgeable about what we have here for resources.
“I just don’t want people to just think of this as a hockey arena,” Trey told me. “We certainly want to hear everyone’s input too, what everyone is excited about or what people want to do. What is the community going to get the most use out of because we know, yeah, it might be helpful that junior hockey and figure skating are still in here, but we are still serving the whole community and we want to be conscious of that.”
It’s been a long while since I’ve had the chance to report on the Potsdam Downtown Revitalization process. I was fortunate enough to have been reporting for the Watertown Daily Times covering Potsdam at the time of the DRI application process and subsequent October 2019 announcement of the village being awarded the $10 million grant by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul during a news conference in Clarkson University’s Old Main building.
Now I am here to tell you the final projects have been submitted to the state for funding consideration and recap a bit of the process during the pandemic.
The Village got to work with the state and local partners, MJ Engineering (from Clifton Park) came on board as the design team and the public had multiple opportunities to sit in on meetings and gatherings to study the projects and give input. But between then and now, the Rona came to town and the DRI’s Local Planning Committee went from in-person meetings to a singular online meeting on March 17 before those meetings came to a sudden halt and the process lost five months, now setting them on an expedited path, according to Frederick J. Hanss, Potsdam’s planning and development director.
Mr. Hanss has been a constant source of information on the process and he, along with LPC member Maggie McKenna, who is also the executive director of the St. Lawrence Arts Council, sat down with me on Sept. 2 to give us an update on all things DRI and my story on that is below.
Glad to be here, your Adult Program Coordinator, William “W.T.” Eckert
Fourteen projects for Potsdam’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative have been selected by the Local Planning Committee and were sent to the state following Wednesday night’s virtual committee meeting.
During the course of the nearly hour-and-a-half meeting, which was the sixth meeting of the LPC led by project consulting agency M.J. Engineering and Land Surveying P.C.and was streamed live on YouTube and can be seen at https://potsdamdri.com/, the committee decided to cut the proposed St. Lawrence Whitewater Park from the original list of 15 projects.
The cost of the whitewater park was a proposed $2,060,000 and was seeking the total amount in its DRI ask, without a local share. The total cost of the 15 projects was $22.2 million prior to the exclusion of the whitewater park, bringing the total projects costs down to $19,940,000. The total ask in grant money from the DRI was reduced from $14.3 million to $12.24 million.
Potsdam Planning and Development Director Frederick J. Hanss said the Local Planning Committee expects to hear back from the state regarding which projects will be chosen for funding no earlier than next year.
Originally at $10 million, the DRI grant funding is now $9.7 million following the cost to create the LPC.
But getting to Wednesday night’s sixth meeting and whittling down the project list and costs was a task, one that was supposed to be completed in May, following the obstacle of a pandemic that shut down businesses, municipalities, and whole communities, including a five-month halt to the DRI process following a March 17 online conference.
“So everything got put on pause and, essentially, what we were hearing from the consultants was that the state wasn’t going to approve what they were calling ‘The Continuation Plan’ piecemeal, so you had to submit it and there was a deadline in April for submissions,” Mr. Hanss said. “I think we are on more of an expedited schedule to get it wrapped up, and this has been a fast-moving process, too.”
The Local Planning Committee submitted their plan to continue virtually while the state agencies and the consulting teams at MJ Engineering worked on a plan to continue the public participation process for the village.
Following the Aug. 12 virtual meeting, the first meeting since March, teams created the online project gallery, the on-street project profile posters that were put up at Jernabi Coffeehouse and the Potsdam Chamber of Commerce, hardcopy brochures, and comment cards that were in the front and rear lobbies of the village offices on Park Street, and the Sept. 2 live Q & A with the DRI LPC Co-chairs, State Representatives, and Project Consultants.
Public Participation ended on Sept. 4, with what Mr. Hanss said was about 90 written comments submitted from the public and about 400 people visited the online project profile. SLC Arts Executive Director Maggie M. McKenna, who is also a village trustee and is a member of the LPC, said she valued the various perspectives and questions about some of the projects, which she had not previously considered,
Ms. McKenna also has a project, North Country Arts Center Project located at 6-8 Raymond St., which is being considered for funding through the DRI. Prior to Wednesday’s LPC meeting, she announced on Facebook that the project already received $20,000 in grant funding from the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency through the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency’s 2020 Community Development & Environmental Improvement Program.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Ms. McKenna told me, laughing. “I have to wear two very different hats when I’m on, which is complicated, because I do have a vote in the Local Planning Committee but I cannot be advocating for my own project because that would be a conflict of interest and I take that very seriously.”
Both Mr. Hanss and Ms. McKenna praised the projects that were submitted by members of the private sector, saying those projects didn’t get the level of attention they deserved.
“So when you look at the Co-Op project or you look at the Clarkson Inn project or Nick Zern’s project (at 59 Market St., doing handicap accessibility, some facilities improvements and then create a business conferencing center in the basement), those are transformative projects, Mr. Hanss said. “Those projects, number one, they are going to generate real property tax revenue for the village, they are going to generate sales tax revenue that the village will enjoy, they are going to provide employment opportunities for people, even with the Co-Op, the Co-Op might be looking at moving five people from being part-time employees to five people being full-time employees. That’s a home run as far as an economic developer is concerned.”
Ms. McKenna, who was previously a member of the Co-Op Board, said there had been a $15,000 marketing study done to determine whether the Co-Op should move. The results of the study said “‘you should move, you will be able to grow.’”
“So it was like ‘move or die’ essentially and they said that the best place we think you should move is somewhere near Pizza Hut, which is exactly where they are going,” she said. “I have been so amazed at the Co-Op because they have three board members running their program and I’m crunching numbers as we speak, right now. So I’m really proud of the Co-Op and their board leadership for doing all that work too. It’s been really incredible.”
Many of these projects, the Co-Op move, The North Country Arts Center, the expansion of the Clarkson Inn, have all been projects in the works, but before the DRI grant, had all been a bit of a pipe dream, Ms. McKenna said.
In the case of the Clarkson Inn project, sponsored by Vision Hotels to include 20 new rooms, a fitness center, and a “modern meeting space,” according to the project proposal, Mr. Hanss said it has been on the drawing board for 10 years, had the schematics all drawn up, and had been to the planning board with approval.
The DRI was a game-changer and a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for Potsdam, Ms. McKenna said.
“All in all, I think it has been really wonderful to see this process unfold, to see the community leaders participating in the conversations and saying this is what we care about as a community, these are the things that matter to us and this is why,” Ms. McKenna said. “But then, on the other side of things, I have a project in here. It’s been really gratifying to see my personal vision ‒ for my downtown that I live in and my organization that I run ‒ is something that people are really interested in. So it has been really exciting to see that happen, too.”
For Mr. Hanss, he said the excitement in the process has been to see the four years he has been working with village officials, like Administrator Gregory O. Thompson and the village board, having submitted DRI applications to the state, lead to a winning proposal.
“For four, whole-long years out in the tall grass to like, boom, we got a Local Planning Committee and they are looking at projects and they are coming up with ideas and watching the process go from 47 projects to 15 projects, that’s been pretty cool,” He said. “And nobody can say that it wasn’t community-driven, because it was, and nobody can say that the public wasn’t’ put in the process, because they were, and it’s worked really well so far.”
William here, again, with a new kind of blog I have been thinking about, probably since prior to my arrival as the Potsdam Public Library Adult Program Coordinator. This one is rooted in the news of not just what is happening around the library, but what is happening around the neighborhood . . . the village, the town, and maybe a bit beyond. This is
A View From the Third Floor
When I was first talking to your devoted Library Director Annie Davey about taking the job, she gave me two options as to where I could have my office: in the solitude of the basement (which is a cozy spot, by all means); or on the third floor, which comes with a window overlooking the library. Without hesitation, I jumped on the third-floor opportunity. I thought, as a program coordinator, how great would it be to be able to look down on the library and imagine how we could utilize the space for talks, concerts, classes, and the like?
But then other stories popped up, as they do in the mind of someone who has been a student of journalism since the early 2000s, and I began to look out the window across from my desk and considered how it overlooks Downtown Potsdam. This third-floor office gives me a view of not just the inside of the library but the outside as well. A View From the Third Floor will, thus, be a kind of news periodical, keeping up with the news of our community, since a library should be a source of information,
Information is the gateway to knowledge, right? So I will keep my ears and eyes open for stories but will count on the community to also keep me in the know.