“I’d rather wear out than rust out.”
This is a sentiment expressed by James Hotchkiss, who is enjoying his “retirement” back in his hometown of Mexico. However, Hotchkiss does not view retirement in a standard way.
He is the driving force behind Visions for the Future of Mexico, a committee that is an offshoot of the Mexico Chamber of Commerce. The committee’s goal is to bring together volunteers to work for the betterment of the community. “I was so involved for so many years in the community, that it was only natural to stay involved,” he said. “If I see something that is broke, I want to fix it.”
Hotchkiss is no stranger to community involvement and leadership. Hotchkiss was the mayor of the village of North Syracuse for 12 years, from 1991-2003. He retired after a 30-year career at Verizon. He worked in Central Office Engineering in Syracuse.
Hotchkiss grew up in Mexico along with his bride of 41 years, Brenda Backus. In fact, Hotchkiss grew up in the house where he currently resides on Scenic Avenue, directly off Route 104 in the village of Mexico. Coincidentally, it is located directly across the street from the Verizon office. Their mothers, meanwhile, are also still residents of Mexico. Florence Hotchkiss, 89, and Jeanette Backus, 88, are both still living independently. “We’re deeply rooted in the Mexico community,” James Hotchkiss said. “I’m glad we came back.”
Hotchkiss, 63, was actually born in New Jersey while his father was enlisted in the Signal Corps during the Vietnam War. He attended Mexico High School and earned a degree in machine technology from SUNY Canton.
One aspect of the village that the Hotchkiss’ enjoy is its small size. “You can walk the village in a couple of hours,” he said. “Our grandkids can ride their bike anywhere without any worries.” The biggest traffic jam is when school starts and lets out, Hotchkiss joked. “We call it the ‘Mexico Rush Minute,’” he said.
Hotchkiss was instrumental in starting Visions for the Future of Mexico, which is an ad hoc committee with no specific charter. It has no officers or budget; it simply is fueled by volunteer spirit. It was started in early 2006. Hotchkiss said the purpose of Visions is simply to upgrade the Mexico community. To that end, the committee refuses to let politics stand in its way, Hotchkiss said. “This is a group made up of all different persuasions. We just get together and avoid any politics. We’re all Mexicans,” Hotchkiss noted. “We needed to get the community together to find out what they wanted Mexico to be,” he said.
Hotchkiss joined forces with county legislator Jack Proud to create the committee, and their first meeting at the Hungerford Library at Mexico Academy & Central School drew close to 30 people.
At that first session, participants each offered suggestions on how to improve Mexico, and a “to do” list was formalized.
Monthly meetings draw anywhere from 15 to 25 people while a summertime picnic is featured as well.
“I’m surprised that it hasn’t waned,” Hotchkiss said regarding the response he has received involving Visions.
The Visions committee impacts the entire Mexico School District. Hotchkiss said the committee carries a lot of influence, and the proof is certainly in the pudding. One of its most ambitious projects involves combining a village hall, town hall and community center into one building. McAuslan Municipal Building at Washington Hall, once complete, will become the hub for the village, Hotchkiss said. The site is the Masonic Temple in the village, a building that used to house the Mexico Theater. Originally Washington Hall, the building is 150 years old. It became a theater in 1941 and was sold to the Masons in 1966.
“Everyone can go to one place and do any kind of community thing they need to do,” Hotchkiss noted.
Grant monies are being sought to refurbish the building and convert the space into offices. “Everyone seems to be behind it,” Hotchkiss said. Ironically, Washington Hall served as a community center back in the 19th century.
The Visions committee is not stopping there. It is also intent on lowering energy costs for residents through windmill-generated power. Hotchkiss said the village will take a serious look at establishing a windmill farm. “We could reduce our electric bills to nothing. The wind mills sell electricity to National Grid and we get credit for it,” he said. He said the same cost-saving measures are being employed in Wolcott, where 4,000 residents are seeing approximately $2 million being redirected back into the community as a result of wind power.
To say Hotchkiss is civically involved is a gross understatement. He is presently affiliated with a dozen boards, commissions and associations. He serves as director of the Mexico Historical Society, is chair of Friends of History & Preservation in Mexico, and is director of Friends of Mexico Point Park.
Hotchkiss and his wife Brenda have four children and seven grandchildren. The couple enjoys boating on Lake Ontario. James is also into genealogy, and notes that he is a relative of Jed Hotchkiss, who was a mat maker for Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War. He is also a second cousin twice removed of Audrey Marie Munson, who was also born in Mexico. Munson was a breathtaking model of choice for many artists and sculptures in New York City early in the 20th century.
Mayoral material—Hotchkiss became involved in politics back in 1970 while a resident of Liverpool.
He became involved as a town GOP committee member and later progressed into planning and zoning.
After moving to North Syracuse, he again got involved in the planning commission before becoming a village board member. He then ran for mayor in ‘91 and went on to serve three four-year terms.
One of Hotchkiss’ major accomplishments came during his first year as mayor. Hotchkiss pulled the right strings to get the village out of perilous financial difficulty. The village budget was $435,000 in deficit at the time he took over as mayor. “We weren’t going to be able to make payroll for the rest of the year,” he said. The village was forced to raise taxes by 59 percent during his first year as mayor.
The village promptly borrowed $300,000 in the form of a short-term loan from Merchants Bank in Syracuse and also sliced expenses to balance the budget. Hotchkiss made it a point to inform village residents of the financial quagmire. The following year, the village board promptly dropped taxes by 25 percent.
Hotchkiss also takes great pride in the beautification of the village of North Syracuse as well during his mayoral tenure. Extensive sidewalk and curb work along Route 11 was accomplished, while Centerville Place was developed out of 14 acres in the center of the village.
The village worked with Loretto during Hotchkiss’ tenure to create Malta House and Malta Manor, two apartment living sites for senior citizens. Other additions include the Sally Coyne PACE CNY Center in North Syracuse, tailored for low-income frail seniors. The center of the village was also transformed to feature a new library, credit union and Masonic Temple.
“I enjoyed being mayor but not the running part,” Hotchkiss said. “People will avoid you in the drugstore if they are on the opposite side of the political fence. It’s ridiculous. I think I’m able to bring people together,” Hotchkiss said as to his strength as a leader. “They may have different views, but they are looking for the same thing in the long run. My job is to bring them together as a unifier and help get them past their differences,” he said. “You have to have the will to want to do it,” he said regarding leadership.
Hotchkiss said he educated himself concerning the workings of government, starting out on the planning board level, attending seminars, and simply listening to other people. “He’s a detail person,” said Brenda Hotchkiss. “He also has a terrific sense of humor, which is very attractive. People like to be around a person with a sense of humor who puts them at ease and allows them to be at their best.”