Cities, groups strive to strengthen downtowns

It’s been decades since Main Street shopping districts were the primary commercial centers of most American cities, but community leaders in the Glove Cities say cultivating healthy, attractive downtowns remains critically important. Big-box chain stores along the Route 30A arterial generate welcome jobs and revenue, but they don’t contribute to the unique character of the community.

“As a community, economically and socially, the downtown is very, very vital,” said Mark Kilmer, president of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose office is at the Four Corners in downtown Gloversville. “Main street is the heartbeat – the citizens of the community can rally around the downtown. This can be a meeting place for people, a unique place to shop.”

The CEO Round Table, a group of business leaders in the Fulton-Montgomery region, has established committees whose mission is to brainstorm ideas for revitalizing the downtowns in Gloversville, Johnstown and Amsterdam.

Christopher Curro, manager of Mohawk Harvest Co-op and chairman of the Gloversville Downtown Revitalization Committee, said the committee is “part of the bigger process to design a functional vision for a more dynamic downtown Gloversville.”

The non-political panel is working on proposals to offer incentives for businesses to set up shop downtown and for property owners to renovate their buildings for new uses, including retail, residential and offices. The committee doesn’t have its own funds to work with, but it could seek financial backing from potential partners such as the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth or the Gloversville Economic Development Corp.

What the future holds for the Glove Cities’ downtowns is hard to tell, but developing a cohesive vision could help, according to Dave D’Amore, owner of AND Architecture and Design and chairman of the Johnstown Downtown Revitalization Committee.

“If the downtowns fail to define their economic niche and reinforce their economic advantages, we could see more decline and blight,” he said. “If downtown business owners and property owners can develop a legitimate business and property management model that offers a solid alternative to what is offered by the arterial development, I actually think you can see a continued strengthening of revitalization along the lines of what you are seeing in Gloversville near Mohawk Harvest.”

An organized effort to improve the downtowns won’t be easy, D’Amore said, because it will require a consensus among many stakeholders, including individual merchants and property owners as well as the municipalities.

“It will require a fair amount of synergy and cooperation to plan development activity in a much more pluralistic, public realm as well as allow more organic development when opportunities present themselves,” he said. “For that reason, the cities need to update their comprehensive plans and, in Gloversville’s case, they need to scrap the existing zoning ordinance and do a complete rewrite with a real vision in mind.”

Gloversville and Johnstown are considering a joint application for a federal grant of $400,000 that would pay for a downtown redevelopment study, but in the meantime, organizations such as the Gloversville Business Improvement District and the Johnstown Tourism and Events Committee are working on ways to invigorate the downtowns.

Karen Smith, president of the BID, said her group’s mission is not to attract new businesses – at least not directly.

“We can only try to make what is here now better,” she said. “We beautify the district … I firmly believe that makes a difference.”

A special tax is collected from property owners in the BID, and the funds are spent on projects such as hanging flower baskets on light poles. The BID also owns and maintains the park just north of the building owned by Joe Gillis, proprietor of Dunday’s men’s clothing store. Smith said the BID plans to dedicate the park to the memory of Louis J. Castiglione Jr., a longtime Gloversville jewelry store owner and a founder of the BID.

Smith said she wishes more downtown business people would actively participate in BID projects and share their ideas and concerns with the board.

“Downtown revitalization is not going to happen overnight,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of work.”

Michael McCabe, the store manager at Castiglione Jewelers, said revitalizing a struggling downtown probably can’t be accomplished without a development entity that can offer tax incentives to businesses. He cites the success of Schenectady’s Metroplex Development Authority as an example.

“They’ve made so many improvements down there, how can you not notice?” he said. “To just put flowers up – that doesn’t cut it.”

McCabe said city leaders, the BID and downtown building owners need to work hand in hand to attract “smart money” to downtown, marketing its best features, such as the quality of the historic architecture along Main Street.

“There are many good, viable buildings here,” he said.

Vince Ottalagano, owner of Vishnu Music, on the corner of South Main and Fremont streets in Gloversville, says competition from big corporate stores like Walmart hurts small businesses all over the country, and he’s not optimistic that Main Street in Gloversville will see any improvement unless merchants and civic leaders learn from past mistakes.

He thinks it’s a bad idea to have community events such as car shows and band concerts that require blocking traffic on Main Street, because the people who attend the events are not there to shop. He said it would make more sense to use the farmers market pavilion or the BID park for such events. (Smith, the BID president, says that is part of the group’s plan for the park.)

“You can’t close off the street for events and expect the stores to generate more sales tax,” Ottalagano said.

He said it’s imperative that downtown businesses stay open past 5 p.m. on weekdays, so they have a chance to do business with the majority of people who have day jobs. And, he said, downtown shops that do stay open late have a hard time attracting customers because of the perception that downtown isn’t safe.

“The complaint I get from customers is ‘I’m afraid to go downtown,'” Ottalagano said, adding he frequently has to deal with broken windows, litter, and people loitering and smoking in front of his store. He said part of the problem is that several downtown buildings house non-profit and human service agencies that work with troubled people, which gives the impression that downtown is populated by the “dregs of the Earth.”

“The problem I see with the downtowns is … you can’t keep putting not-for-profits in a retail zone and expect better retail,” he said. “If that’s the new downtown, there is no reason to come to Gloversville. And there’s no reason to have a BID or trees in front of your windows or flowers hanging from the light poles.”

Priscilla Mitchell, owner of Mysteries on Main Street, said Johnstown’s downtown merchants are a “pretty cohesive group,” though the downtown business association is no longer active. She said community events such as the holiday Colonial Stroll have been good for business at her bookstore.

“The aisles are stuffed with people,” she said. “They might not spend money that night, but they are looking, and maybe they’ll come back.”

Michael Julius, one of the four candidates for mayor in Johnstown, said he would recommend reducing the time limit for parking along Main Street from two hours to one.

“It think it’s way too long,” he said.

Bob Sefcik, owner of Enable Your Mobility, on North Main in Gloversville, said parking doesn’t appear to be a problem near his store, which sells and rents scooters and wheelchairs. But high snowbanks lining the street are a problem in the wintertime, he said, especially for elderly and disabled customers.

Sefcik opened his store about a year ago and is a member of the Gloversville Downtown Revitalization Committee. He says many motorists drive too fast and too recklessly for what’s supposed to be a pedestrian-friendly shopping district. The two crosswalk signs on North Main Street are a good start, he said, but perhaps more should be done.

“Let’s plaster this place with signs and slow these people down,” he said.

Kilmer said one of the key steps in making downtowns attractive is to make sure they offer weekend and nighttime events, as well as restaurants and other gathering places. Such features, combined with the availability of quality housing, he said, can draw not only visitors but residents.

“We see a tendency recently, particularly for younger people, to want to live in downtowns,” he said. “They don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. They’re looking for condominium- or apartment-style buildings where they can they walk to a local shop, they can walk to a restaurant and have fun on weekends.”