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Empire State Senior Games Re-energized City

 Empire State Senior Games Re-energized City

06/07/2011 

The SUNY Cortland campus and community were flush with physically fit, older citizens recently, as older athletes traveled from throughout the state to compete in the 2011 Empire State Senior Games.

Approximately 1,100 registered participants were swinging golf clubs, playing bridge, aiming bowling balls at rows of pins, drawing a bow on the archery range or doing whatever one does with a pickleball on the College’s grounds from June 7 through June 12. With 24 different competitions offered, there was a leisure activity to suit almost every interest.

Events also took place elsewhere in Cortland, at the Walden Oaks Country Club, Cort-Lanes Bowling Alley and the Groton Horseshoe Club.

“I started when I was 58 and I’ve competed in softball, volleyball and pickleball,” said Gene Signor, director emeritus of academic computing services at SUNY Cortland, before the games began. This year, the 71-year-old Cortland resident planned to compete only in pickleball, a game that’s a bit like tennis played with a perforated ball — like a whiffleball — on a badminton-sized court. “I refer to it as a sport with a funny name but it’s a lot of fun.”

He and his wife, Sharon, vied against others in their five-year age group as a mixed doubles team. Signor also competed in men’s doubles.

Empire State Senior Games
One participant in the Empire State Senior games hoists a javelin as her competitors look on.

“It’s really helped prolong our youth and vitality,” said Signor, who also had served since January on the all-volunteer organizing committee. “It helps us sustain a quality of life. It also lets us see friends whom we don’t usually deal with.”

This year, the Empire State Senior Games were held with little help from the Empire State. The state government cancelled the games and its role in them because of budget concerns. Traditionally, the games were administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and were sponsored by the New York State Lottery.

The 2011 games, a program of organized sports and leisure program for seniors from New York state, instead was facilitated through a joint effort between the Cortland Regional Sports Council and the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

After the state cut its funding, individuals advocated to save the event, geared for New York state’s seniors 50 years and older. Officials of the College offered the campus to serve as the host site. The Cortland Regional Sports Council and the Cortland County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau stepped up to sponsor the games. Organizers expect to recoup the $160,000 in costs from registration fees.

“At the time when we found out the state was disbanding the games, we felt we had no choice but to step to the plate and do what we could to put them together ourselves,” explained Machell Phelps, executive director of the Cortland Regional Sports Council.

Tourism and economic development officials wanted to keep the games going in Cortland, as they always have filled local hotel rooms, kept restaurants hopping and provided a steady flow of business to other merchants during what is normally a quiet time of year when most college students are away on summer break.

Some of the many out-of-town senior athletes stayed in residence halls. The majority chose to spend their nights in a local hotel or motel.

James Dempsey, who directs the Cortland County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said that local hotels booked 2,500 room nights, which brought them an estimated $200,000 in business. The businesses also lined county coffers with approximately $17,000 in sales tax revenue and $10,000 in occupancy taxes.

“This is a really good thing for us,” Dempsey noted. “There were other cities that have offered to take it over if we didn’t want to have the games here.

“Doing business within our community to support the games was one of the first decisions we made as a committee,” said Dempsey. “That philosophy will continue as we progress.”

With the assistance of former and current state employees, planning began with a goal to register 1,000 participants and run similar games to past years.

“Without help from our sport coordinators, the facility managers and other volunteers, our task would have been impossible,” remarked Phelps.

SUNY Cortland has hosted the senior games for all but four years — from 1998-2001 according to College records — since the event was launched in the early 1980s, said Mike Whitlock, the College’s director of Corey Union, campus activities and conferences. The school offered food, lodging, shuttle transportation and use of its athletic facilities to competitors this year, according to Whitlock.

The sports council hoped to pay for all or most of the games with entry fees — which didn't increase from 2010 levels — and sponsor donations, Phelps said. The projected cost was about $160,000.

The games continued offering a wide variety of events, which ranged from discus and javelin throwing to softball, shuffleboard and tennis. Some participants used the games to qualify for the national senior games held every other year.

As the event is no longer state sponsored, out-of-state competitors were allowed to register for competitions, Signor noted. He doesn’t know how many non-New Yorkers competed, but he knows a few Connecticut residents are signed up.

For more information, visit the Senior Games website at www.nyseniorgames.com. The site was constructed and is being hosted by Plan First Technologies of Cortland.