Pipe band to perform at Cortland Celtic Festival —

The beat goes on for local family


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
John MacNeill models his drum major dress uniform as his wife, Betty, holds the outfit’s headdress this morning in their yard in Homer.

Staff Reporter

HOMER — When the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band takes the stage at the Cortland Celtic Festival on Saturday, longtime drum major John MacNeill won’t be able to join them.
“It’s just not as easy to be out marching anymore,” said MacNeill, 79, who lives on Balmoral Way.
While MacNeill will miss the thrill of performing Saturday, he’ll still undoubtedly feel a twinge of pride, as marching in the band in his stead will be a host of his children and grandchildren, all of whom have adopted his love for traditional Scottish bagpipe music and dancing.
“The MacNeill family is pretty well entrenched in that band and that means a lot to us,” MacNeill said. “It’s been a great way to bring the family together for years.”
MacNeill’s wife, Betty, daughters Billie MacNeill and Claudia MacNeill Caretti and granddaughter Vanessa Caretti will play in the band at the festival, while his grandchildren Adam, Connell and Aurora MacNeill will be performing with the Clough School of Highland Dance, a new Cortland-based Scottish dancing program.
Their involvement, along with countless MacNeill cousins who have grown up piping or dancing, is a result of a passion for Scottish heritage that began with John and his now-deceased brother Arthur — a passion that has been a hallmark of the family for decades.
“Really, once the parents get involved, the kids have no choice but to tag along, so they pretty much have to get interested, too,” said Billie MacNeill, who has been playing snare drums for about 13 years. “It’s not always easy. You have to be very dedicated, but once you get excited about it, you definitely stick with it.”
Betty MacNeill, 82, said she couldn’t help but become interested when she started accompanying her husband to practices in Rome with the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band in the mid-1980s.
“I started driving up with John after he was asked to be drum major and I would tap my toe to the music and before long I thought this was something I could definitely do,” she said.
Her husband said she is now one of the oldest tenor drummers in the state.
John MacNeill said he initially was drawn to Scottish music while attending the Highland Games, a Scottish festival in Syracuse, as far back as 1958.
“There’s so much about it that interests me — the sound of the bagpipes and the novelty of it, just being a part of the Scottish tradition,” he said.
MacNeill’s brother taught himself to play the bagpipes in the 1960s and when his band in Delaware County folded, Arthur MacNeill moved to Cortland and recruited John to serve as drum major for the Caledonian Society of Central New York’s Cortland pipe band.
“I think the whole reason they formed that society was probably so they could have a pipe band, and before long we did,” John MacNeill said.
The Cortland pipe band was active circa 1976 to 1983.
“We weren’t the biggest band,” John said. “We marched primarily in parades in Cortland and we had to borrow pipers from other areas, but we had a good time.”
Rekindling that spirit in Cortland County is one of the goals of the Cortland Celtic Festival, said Cecile Scott, one of the event organizers.
With the Clough Highland dancing class and an Irish dancing class, along with a piping class just becoming available to Cortland residents in the past couple of years, Scott is hopeful the festival, now in its fifth year, can prompt enough interest to some day start up a re-formed Cortland Pipe Band.
“The Celtic Festival is more than just a day of entertainment, it’s really had an impact in introducing people to the Celtic heritage,” Scott said. “I would love to some day soon see a local pipe band here again — I’ve even been joking around about calling them the Seven Valley Highlanders.”
Since the Cortland band folded, John MacNeill has served as drum major in other bands, and he and his family have become fixtures in the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band, but he said he’d be glad to see a local band re-formed.
“It would be nice, but it would take a lot of organization and dedication,” MacNeill said. “Plus you’d have to draw pipers from all over, but sure, I’d like to see it grow around here.”
For now, although MacNeill can’t always march like he used to, he’s content to tour with the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band and enjoy the good music with his family.
“Every weekend from St. Patrick’s Day until the end of October we’re out having fun,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to spend your free time.”
The Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band, joined by the Clough School of Highland Dance, will perform at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Cortland Celtic Festival.



City, Solon, Dryden get housing grants

Staff Reporter

The city of Cortland and the town of Solon in Cortland County and the village of Dryden in Tompkins County were each awarded $400,000 state grants Wednesday to renovate housing.
For the city, the $400,000 will fund a program initiated last September by a grant of the same amount that rehabilitates rental properties. Solon plans to use its grant to rehabilitate substandard, owner-occupied housing.
Thoma Development Consultants of Cortland will administer both programs, which are funded as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program, which is administered by the state Office of Small Cities.
The money will be distributed in Cortland based upon the condition of the participating properties and the income range of the tenants. In Solon, it will be based upon the condition of the housing and the income level of the homeowners.
The rental-housing funds are made available to the owners of properties whose tenants fall below 80 percent of the median income based on the number of members of each household, said Bernard Thoma of Thoma Development.
For a family of four, that works out to a maximum annual income of $40,300, he said. Similar criteria apply for Solon.
The Solon money will be distributed in the form of deferred payment loans, which do not have to be paid back after five years as long as the home hasn’t been sold and the property has been maintained properly, Thoma said.
Because the owners of the rental properties are not necessarily low to moderate-income, Thoma said, only half of the money awarded to each landlord in the city would be issued under a five-year deferred payment loan. The other half would come in the form of a zero-interest loan.
Twelve properties across the city, most of which house two or three families, are being rehabilitated using last year’s grant, Thoma said, and about 12 more will be addressed using the funding from this round.
“In both cases, we have properties that have expressed interest, but no decisions have been made yet,” Thoma said of the possible properties that will be improved with the new grant. “We had a lot more properties than we had money for (in Cortland during the last round)… We have a waiting list established.”
Since not all of the money awarded to the city in the previous round has been expended yet, the new funding should kick in sometime within the next several weeks, Thoma said, and will essentially continue the current program. Of course, new applicants can still make the applicant pool if they meet the requirements.
However, the administrative duties involved in getting the Solon program up and running should delay the acceptance of applications until at least November, Thoma said. At that time, any interested parties can contact Thoma Development and the firm will help guide them through the application process.




Dryden OKs $3M in bids for town hall

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — The Town Board approved nearly $3 million in bids Wednesday for construction of a new town hall on East Main Street.
The bids cover general contracting, plumbing, heating and cooling, and electrical work, and total $2,965,000, which includes contingencies.
Code Enforcement Officer Henry Slater said the general contracting bid went to McPherson Builders, of Ithaca; the electrical contract went to Knapp, of Auburn; the heating and cooling (HVAC) contract went to Frey & Campbell, of Hammondsport; and the plumbing bid went to John M. Contro, of Binghamton.
Town Supervisor Steve Trumbull said the bids came in about $35,000 more than the estimated project cost of $2,965,000.
Trumbull said the plumbing bid, which initially included much of cost overrun, was renegotiated during the meeting held Wednesday; all the contractors were present. He said the town made changes in the design to lower the cost.
Slater said more was trimmed from other contracts also to build in a contingency in the project. The contingency pays for changes to design or materials as the project proceeds. He said about $112,000 was shaved off the project bids. He did not know the figures for the revised individual bids.
The town will have a groundbreaking ceremony at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Actual work will start after Labor Day, Trumbull said. He added the project is still slated for completion by the end of August 2007, providing the weather cooperates.
The new hall will be built east of the current hall on East Main Street and will include more office space and a larger meeting room for board meetings and courts in the 12,000-square-foot building. It will also have conference rooms that could be used for meetings or arraignments.
The town announced the decision to purchase the property from Empire Livestock in January 2005. The town paid $100,000 for the 47 acres, which included about 21 acres of wetlands. The current town hall will continue to be used by the town, though exactly how has yet to be decided.