Water quality concerns, extreme weather, tourism developments and a bunch of high school state titles were among the stories making the biggest impact on life in the Cayuga County area during 2017. Based on surveys of The Citizen staff and online readers, here are the 10 biggest local stories of the past 12 months.
1. Harmful algal blooms return to Cayuga County-area, multi-faceted response evolves
Call it a repeat.
The biggest local story of 2016 was the infiltration of algal toxins into the public water supply drawn from Owasco Lake. In 2017, the story continued to make major headlines, with much of the news revolving around efforts to deal with the problem.
In January, responding to outcry from the public and local elected officials for help from the state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to include $2 million in the state budget to allow the city of Auburn and town of Owasco to install new activated-carbon equipment for their water filtration systems. That work was eventually funded and completed at both facilities, and the systems were put to the test in late summer when harmful algal blooms returned in a big way to Owasco Lake. Initial indications are that the programs worked well to keep the drinking water safe in 2017.
Meanwhile, the harmful algal bloom problem expanded well beyond Owasco Lake's public water supply. Toxins were detected in raw water drawn from Skaneateles Lake, the source for numerous towns in Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse. Cayuga Lake also experienced significant blooms this summer. In fact, dozens of water bodies throughout the state were affected.
The outbreaks of the summer were one reason behind a new proposal coming from Cuomo. Earlier this month, the governor said he will call for $65 million in state funding to combat blooms in 12 lakes around the state, including the cluster of Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes.
Meanwhile, efforts by local officials to address long-term water quality concerns in the Owasco Lake Watershed moved forward. A multi-year effort to restore the Owasco Flats wetlands at the southern end of the lake finally secured state and federal approvals. The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council launched the process to create and implement a Nine Element Watershed Plan to address non-point sources of contamination. The council, working with the Cayuga County Planning and Economic Development Office, has established a steering committee that's working on a revision of the watershed's rules and regulations.
How all of these efforts and more play out will likely be among the biggest stories of 2018.
2. Extreme weather hits both ends of Cayuga County
Heavy rainfall and flash flooding are not unusual occurrences in Cayuga County, but the extent to which they affected the Lake Ontario shoreline to the north and a handful of towns and villages to the south in 2017 was rare — and also destructive.
A combination of record spring precipitation, heavy lake winds and, in the minds of some government officials, a change in how Lake Ontario levels are regulated, all combined to produce major flooding that hit the town of Sterling and village of Fair Haven right when the late-spring/early-summer tourism season typically begins.
About little over a month later, torrential downpours dumped far more water than communities in southern Cayuga County could handle. Large swaths of land were underwater, roads and bridges were damaged, and emergency crews were stretched to the limit.
With both of these stories, U.S. government officials are considering appeals of decisions that the weather events did not qualify for federal disaster relief.
3. State's $10 million Auburn project draws cheers, jeers
The news of a state-funded regional welcome center coming to Auburn actually broke in 2016, but the major details of the project — and the strong reactions to them — were hashed out over many months this year.
The first major decision was where to put the facility, billed in its earliest stages a welcome center for the central New York region. The Auburn City Council chose the site of a parking lot between Memorial City Hall and the Auburn YMCA, a decision that drew considerable opposition. The parking lot in question gets heavy use by Y members, not to mention visitors to Auburn Public Theater and Seward House Museum. City officials made modifications to the original designs to preserve some parking, began renovations to the nearby municipal parking garage, unveiled plans to remake the street alignment to improve pedestrian safety, and announced their intention to expand a different parking lot on the other side of the YMCA.
Later in the year, New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul came to officially announce that the center would be called the Equal Rights Heritage Center (a separate central New York center opened in Syracuse at the Destiny USA mall) and that the state was pouring $10 million into the project, which is expected to be completed around the fall of 2018.
4. Major renovation work starts at Auburn Schine's Theater
For the first time in more than a decade, the vacant Auburn Schine Theater saw major restoration work take place and significant outside funding secured. The historic downtown Auburn theater was chosen by city officials to receive $800,000 in federal funds to pay for the removal of asbestos and other hazardous materials, a step that has blocked just about any other physical work from progressing. In addition, the state has awarded a $1.2 million grant to move the project forward after the remediation work is finished.
A big development in the project came when the theater's longtime owner, the Cayuga County Arts Council, reached an agreement with Syracuse-based Bowers Development to establish a new ownership structure and put Bowers in charge of the work. Details of that arrangement are still being finalized and reviewed, but officials are pointing to a $6 million project that could be completed by October 2019.
5. Spotlight on Auburn's Harriet Tubman shines bright
Famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman and her connections to Auburn made major headlines on multiple occasions during 2017.
The year started with the culmination of an effort that was several years in the making — an official Washington, D.C., ceremony to formally establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn and Fleming. Since that day, work by the nonprofit Harriet Tubman Home and National Parks Service to implement the national park designation has evolved over the course of the year.
Meanwhile, national news broke with the discovery of a photo of Tubman from her younger days, and the Smithsonian would go on to acquire that picture in an art auction, beating out an effort by the Tubman Home to raise money to make a purchase.
Tubman's future on American currency was also in the news. Following an announcement in 2016 that she would eventually be placed on the $20 bill, the Trump administration hinted that such a plan may not come to fruition.
6. Seneca County casino draws visitors, creates jobs
One of the most-anticipated business openings in the Finger Lakes region this decade took place at the start of February when del Lago Resort & Casino opened in the Seneca County town of Tyre.
The $440 million facility, located off the state Thruway not far from the border with Cayuga County, includes a 94,000-square-foot gaming floor, a 2,400 seat entertainment venue, numerous restaurants and a hotel with more than 200 rooms.
The facility employs about 1,700 people, making it one of the largest employers in the region. It has also proven to be one of the biggest tourism draws, with traffic at the Thruway exit by the casino up 43 percent.
Since it opened, del Lago has reported more than $125 million in gross gaming revenue, which means it will fall short of the $263 million developers projected when they secured the state license to open the resort.
7. Fight continues against Cayuga County addiction epidemic
A troubling story that has shaken much of the country for several years continues to play out in Cayuga County, as well.
The battle against addiction, particularly dependence on opioids, has seen some noted progress in Cayuga County in 2017. More people are seeking and getting into treatment programs, a trend local officials attribute to better access and increased awareness of the problem.
Nevertheless, the destruction these drugs cause is far from eliminated. A scary reminder of this fact took place in February, when Cayuga County Coroner Dr. Adam Duckett issued a warning to the community regarding a spike in overdose cases.
"I am writing this post today because my investigators and myself have seen a rise in overdoses in our County this week and it has made me very uneasy," he wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 9. "I want to reach as many people as possible to warn them to BE CAREFUL. Something very lethal is being passed around right now and until we know what it is, PLEASE take this time to get HELP."
8. Contraband cases vacated amid Auburn prison probe
Like in past years, several cases involving inmate contraband at Auburn Correctional Facility have come before Cayuga County Court judges in 2017, but this year saw six convictions vacated or pending cases dismissed.
The reason was related to an investigation at the maximum security prison into allegations of weapons being planted on inmates. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's Office of Special Investigations began investigating Auburn prison in December 2016 after Corrections Officer Matthew Cornell admitted to planting a weapon on an inmate, according to authorities. Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann agreed to have six criminal cases involving Cornell vacated or dismissed "in the interest of justice." The DA said their was no evidence of wrongdoing by any officer in any of the cases.
9. Fingerlakes Mall put up for sale, adds anchor tenant
The Fingerlakes Mall has experienced substantial changes over the years, but 2017 may be remembered for a change that didn't happen — at least not yet.
The owner of the Aurelius shopping center, a New York City diamond merchant named Siba Corp., put the facility up for sale in April, with a $7 million list price. In July, the mall was put on an online auction block, and a flurry of bids came in ranging from $1.7 million to $4.1 million, but the owners turned down all of the offers. In addition, Adam Weitsman, owner of The Krebs restaurant in Skaneateles and Owego recycling business Upstate Shredding, confirmed that he had made an offer for the site but was turned down. Amid all of the activity, the mall added a new large tenant. The Great Outdoors RV Superstore opened this fall in the former Sears space.
10. Moravia, Skaneateles capture state crowns
State championship high school sports teams always generate plenty of community and school spirit, but this calendar year brought a pair of title runs that also made school history.
Both the Moravia Blue Devils boys basketball team and the Skaneateles Lakers football team captivated fans by winning their first state titles in program history. For Moravia, the 2017 crown was a breakthrough that followed multiple deep state tournament runs in the past. For Skaneateles, just getting past the regional qualifier was a first, and the team followed with two more victories to earn the top prize.
The football team's win capped a remarkable year for Skaneateles athletic program, which also had state championship teams in girls hockey and lacrosse, as well as individual state champion Raenah Campbell, who won the state track and field title in Division 2 girls 400m hurdles.