When Caroline Williams ’01 visited her hometown of Remsen, New York, in 2006, she saw opportunity in an unlikely place: an old grain mill in the village was for sale.
“People thought I was crazy,” said Williams, who majored in landscape architecture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The building was in terrible condition, but when you have that design background, you can see what it might look like, even when other people can’t.”
Williams was living in California at the time, but she moved back home to renovate the mill into apartments – in the first of many commitments to invigorate, beautify and give back to her hometown and the region.
Now a resident of Remsen and program manager for the Lead-Free Mohawk Valley Initiative out of Utica, New York, Williams is the 10th recipient of the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni from New York state who return to their hometowns after graduation and make a positive impact on their local communities.
“For the past 15 years, Caroline has been a fixture in the Utica area, supporting local communities through many different professional and volunteer roles,” said Susan Riley, deputy director of community relations, who presented the award at a ceremony on Oct. 6, at the Trackside Restaurant in Utica. “She is precisely the kind of person we seek to honor with our Hometown Alumni Award.”
Williams has dedicated herself to improving living conditions in the area, both at work and in her personal life. She worked for nine years for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County, in both rural development and as coordinator of the Rust2Green Urban Studio in Utica, which collaborated with Cornell landscape architecture students from 2010 to 2020 on projects to revitalize the city (the board, of which Williams is a member, continues this work). Those projects have included creative placemaking and a concert series in Kopernik Park, an art installation of large wooden flowers and mosaics in Oneida Square, and development and revitalization of the Baggs Square neighborhood, which has resulted in the addition of murals, bike racks, pole banners, new lighting, and initiatives that bring awareness to the neighborhood’s history.
In her current role as program manager for Lead-Free Mohawk Valley, Williams manages multiple grants and orchestrates a coalition of more than 40 partners working to reduce lead exposure and educate the community about the dangers and prevention of lead poisoning. Oneida County has one of the highest lead poisoning rates for children in the state.
In her hometown of Remsen, population 435, Williams has been involved in numerous projects through the Remsen Development Corporation and has served in local government – as a trustee, deputy mayor and now, deputy clerk and tax collector.
The grain mill was the first of seven village properties Williams has purchased and renovated with her brother, Jared Williams, an effort that has significant meaning for her; after the sale of her family’s dairy farm and her parents’ divorce, she and her brother spent much of their childhood living in substandard housing.
“There are so many great parts of the village, but this is also a community that has a more than 30% poverty rate,” Williams said. “Watching my mother try to find a decent apartment with kids was really hard. If 10 buildings can be renovated in a small community like this, you would really see the difference.”
Williams credits Cornell and the Department of Landscape Architecture for providing an education that emphasizes creativity and application, so graduates can truly make a difference in their communities.
“The community engagement component was really important for me as well, and unique,” she said. “We were asked to figure out how we could make our mark on the world while also involving a community and including them in the process.”
John Secor, president of Remsen Development Corporation, and Alicia Fernandez Dicks, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, both spoke at the award ceremony. Also in attendance were Williams’ mother and brother, and representatives and leadership from Cornell Cooperative Extension, the town and village of Remsen, the city of Utica, and the government of Oneida County.
“I have watched Caroline grow up to be a gifted woman who understands the area and community,” Secor said. “She has the ability to relate with people from all backgrounds.”
Williams said her dedication to service comes from growing up in a small town, where people rely on each other out of necessity. “People in Remsen come together to celebrate things, but they also come together to support each other when things are difficult, because you’re connected,” she said. “People did things and gave their time for my life to be better, so how do you not repay the favor?”
Cornell’s Division of University Relations created the Hometown Alumni Award in 2018 in collaboration with Alumni Affairs and Development. As part of this year’s award, Cornell will donate $1,000 to the Levitt AMP Concert Series in Utica.