In recognition of the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation celebrating its 25th year, the group is looking back on some of the biggest philanthropic projects they have helped support

Joe and Cecily Higgins had a dream of bringing a recreational trail to the Olean/Allegany area. Thanks to their hard work and persistence, that dream became the Allegheny River Valley Trail.

Joe Higgins remembered that prior studies had been completed on the feasibility of a trail project in the Olean/Allegany area, but nothing had come to fruition as the studies suggested placing a trail on the opposite side of the Allegheny River from its current location, which would have been a logistical nightmare, and, he said, just is not where people live.

Once there was an idea to construct the trail in its current location, which is built mostly on floodplain along the river, Joe decided to put wheels in motion.

“It was July of 1992 when I decided to call a meeting — I called everybody: all of the Portville, Olean and Allegany local government people and county legislators and such — to lunch at the Bartlett,” says Higgins, who was a member of the Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce board at the time. “That was the start of it, and then, of course, a committee formed from there.”

The trail committee formed after that meeting (primarily of members of the GOACC board and other interested parties) and then worked to put together a grant application for a Federal Highway Commission grant after the federal commission declared the federal highway system complete and turned its focus to different transportation projects around the country.

“We applied for a grant from [from the commission] on its first time around, and we received a grant of $446,396,” he recalls. “We estimated what it would take to complete the project, so I split that up into four pieces to make up that difference, and it came out to $27,000 (which he eventually convinced local municipalities to fund).”

Early on, Higgins and his wife first met Wendy Brand, who currently serves as CRCF board president.

“She was an awesome help. For the National Parks Service she covered Washington and Oregon. So she’d worked on trail projects and similar projects before,” Higgins says. “Cecily met her at a Welcome Wagon meeting when she moved to town and Cecily said, ‘You know, Joe and I are working on this project,’ and right away Wendy offered to help if we needed it.”

Brand was instrumental in securing the trail’s eventual municipal sponsor to handle the administration and implementation.

“When I came, I had just been working on a bunch of transportation grants in my old position,” she says. “We (the trail committee) couldn’t apply for the available grants until we could find a sponsor, and it couldn’t be the chamber of commerce.

“So I made presentations, and Joe did too, to the various communities,” Brand remembers. “The Town of Allegany eventually agreed to be the sponsor, which meant they were technically responsible for the implementation.”

And so the river trail project was off the ground. Still, Higgins said there was a lack of funding for the project.

Out of that disparity came the need for a Community Foundation.

“The bottom line is we were short $160,000 or something like that,” Higgins says. “There was a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, and Mike Kasperski (serving as GOACC treasurer at the time) said, ‘Well, the Chamber doesn’t have $160,000 (for the trail).’ So we had to find some way to get that funding.”

Higgins says that there had been prior discussions within the chamber board about the need for a community foundation, but the river trail project escalated the need dramatically.

“We needed some way to make it possible for people to make donations that would be tax-deductible,” Higgins says.

The chamber’s director at the time hired a lawyer and began completing the legal process of creating a 501(c)3 community foundation, leading to the official formation of the Greater Olean Area Community Foundation — now known as the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation.

The Foundation officially received nonprofit status on September, 20, 1994.

Once that infrastructure was in place, the committee and the early Foundation board had to secure public funding for the project, which happened through a brick-sale campaign.

“One of the things we needed was match money, and that’s when we decided to sell bricks,” said Brand. “Curt Crandall of Crandall’s memorials was absolutely essential. No one around here had ever done that at the time.”

Those bricks were placed in two plazas that still stand today. One is at Gargoyle Park in Olean, and one is in front of the Country Inn & Suites in Allegany. Bricks are still sold to support trail maintenance as well, with proceeds going to the Allegheny River Valley Trail Fund at CRCF.

With public support made possible by the community foundation, the trail project reached its funding goal and was constructed into the community gem it is today.

Higgins and Brand remember the naysayers during the time of the project, but both agree that the work has more than paid off.

“There was opposition. Any time you do want to do anything there will be people against it,” Higgins recalls.

“I worked with a lot of trail projects around the country, and I’ve never seen one come together this quickly,” Brand says. “And I think that’s because of Joe. He never gave up or quit. We had a lot of opposition at the time, but once the thing went in you seldom hear a bad word about it.”

For both, the trail project was the beginning of a long relationship with the organization that would become CRCF. Brand has now served on the board of directors for nine years. Higgins also served on the board for a number of years and is an honorary CRCF board member.

Joe and Cecily Higgins also received the Friends of the Foundation award in 2018 — the organization’s highest honor.

Without the early leadership of people like Joe Higgins and Wendy Brand, neither of these incredible community assets would exist and serve the community as they do today.

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