Community planner receives NYS Hometown Alumni Award
By Joe Wilensky
E. Hartley Bonisteel Schweitzer ’09 is a Watertown native who credits her community and family for setting the example of community engagement that she follows today.
Bonisteel Schweitzer, who graduated from Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning with a degree in city and regional planning, is a community planner for the Development Authority of the North Country. She was named the latest recipient of the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award for her “steadfast, proactive engagement in Jefferson County” at a Nov. 22 luncheon ceremony in Watertown attended by family, colleagues and Cornellians.
Bonisteel Schweitzer lived briefly in New York City before returning home to Watertown, where she serves at the development authority as a resource to the communities of the region, helping to guide and advocate for their development and enhance their resilience. In that role, she also is a community liaison with nearby Fort Drum, home of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Bonisteel Schweitzer serves on numerous local volunteer councils and boards, including that of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.
Launched in 2018, the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award recognizes Cornell graduates who return to their home counties or regions to start or enhance a business or nonprofit. Honorees regularly volunteer and are deeply engaged in, and make an impact on, those communities.
In presenting the award, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, described Bonisteel Schweitzer’s upbringing in Jefferson County. As teens, she and her siblings worked at their father’s grocery store, which instilled in her not only a love of the region but also a bigger-picture view of New York’s North Country.
“[It’s] a place,” Malina said, “that’s peppered with resilient communities that have weathered economic transitions after the time of paper mills and factories, endured the sudden growth and expansion of Fort Drum, lasted through a shift from a focus on local to global economic development, and is now managing the ebbs and flows of soldier deployments and surges.”
Bonisteel Schweitzer began her college career at Clark University in Massachusetts, where a geography project on the impact of Hurricane Katrina cemented her interest in city and regional planning and fueled her transfer to Cornell as a second-year student at AAP, where she thrived.
Sarah Compo, a Watertown native, member of the Watertown City Council and the chief of staff for New York State Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-48th Dist.), spoke about her work with Bonisteel Schweitzer and about their personal friendship.
“Hartley acts as a passionate advocate for our communities,” Compo said, noting that in all of her efforts she “uses her knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for making our region a better place to create positive change.”
Compo said Bonisteel Schweitzer also helped establish a regional book club, attended by a mix of young women in the region from all fields who discuss books as well as ideas for building and strengthening their community.
She noted that one of the books Bonisteel Schweitzer had suggested was “The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt” by David Giffels, who tells his story of coming of age in Akron, Ohio. “I spent my whole life watching people leave,” Giffels writes. But in the book’s following essays, Compo said, “he paints a picture for the reader of an individual who loves his home fiercely, despite its flaws,” Compo said. “[One] who has the optimism, grit and determination necessary to make it better.”
That “reminds me a lot of what we are here today to celebrate, and why Hartley has been recognized with this honor,” Compo said. “To Hartley, congratulations on this award and, more importantly, thank you for returning home to share your talents, your time and your passion with our community.”
In accepting the award, Bonisteel Schweitzer thanked her parents, “who taught me to view all the work that I do, either professionally or personally, as building a community that works for everyone,” she said.
She thanked her husband, RJ, with whom she is raising two young daughters and balancing the family’s two full-time careers: “It’s no small task, and yet you still prioritize and help us build community engagement into our lives.”
Bonisteel Schweitzer thanked her hometown community, noting that it was an internship she got at age 15, conducting surveys for a local neighborhood improvement district, that set her career in motion. Through additional work and training opportunities offered by local nonprofit organizations, she and other interns began learning the importance and value of community planning.
“Here in Jefferson County, we have to grow our own,” she said. “We need to continually build opportunities for young people to get engaged and learn about working in this community.”
As part of the award, Cornell is donating $1,000 in Bonisteel Schweitzer’s name to Watertown Urban Mission’s HEARTH Program, which helps individuals and families who are homeless, or in danger of becoming homeless, find or maintain stable housing.
Bonisteel Schweitzer also received a Congressional Certificate of Special Professional Recognition, presented by Mary Jo Richards, regional director for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-21st Dist.); a certificate from the New York State Assembly, presented by Mike Schenk, chief of staff for Assemblyman Mark Walczyk (R-116th Dist.); a proclamation from Ritchie’s New York State Senate office; and a certificate of recognition from the city of Watertown.