Editorial: Orleans communities should think big and go after $10 million from NY

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 March 2016 at 10:00 am
Bent's Opera House

File photos by Tom Rivers The Bent’s Opera House is pictured here in 2014 when contractors were stabilizing a corner of the building. The three-story building was built during the Civil War in 1864. The Orleans Renaissance Group sees potential in the site as a performing arts venue with a restaurant and offices.

A big pot of money, $10 million, could be directed to a downtown in Orleans County if community leaders can make the case for how the money would transform the business district, creating more vibrant businesses and places to live.

Gov. Cuomo, in his budget presentation in January, announced he wanted $100 million for 10 “distressed downtowns” in the state. Each region would pick a struggling community suffering from population loss and economic decline.

The villages of Albion, Medina and Holley all seem like good candidates for the money. All have declines in population and tax bases, as well as high poverty rates and crushing tax burdens. The tax rates in these villages are among the highest in the Finger Lakes region.

The community that gets the $10 million needs to put together a plan, identifying projects. Cuomo often speaks about how his administration, in five years, has pushed hard to bring funding to Upstate New York. The initiatives, including The Buffalo Billion, have boosted confidence and investment in long-suffering communities. However, Cuomo said some places have been left out.

That’s why he wants the $100 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative. It’s part of his budget proposal. Our local state legislators haven’t spoken much or at all about this money. They haven’t helped Orleans villages get plans in place for transformative money that could be approved in the new budget, taking effect April 1.

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council met on Feb. 25. Orleans is one of nine counties in the region, and the council will pick one community for the $10 million if it’s in the new state budget.

Vincent Esposito, council director, said he expects the money will be in the budget. There were about 200 people at the Feb. 25 meeting, officials from communities throughout the region. Esposito urged them to get started on a big plan for a struggling community.

The plans would likely be due in the summer with a grant award announced in December. The state would provide planning experts to create a strategic downtown redevelopment plan for the selected community.

“Eligible projects will include those that grow small businesses and employment, expand housing, improve transportation, and partner with large institutions such as universities and hospitals,” Cuomo said in January.

I think Albion, Medina and Holley all have a good shot at this money. It’s easy enough to use assessment data and Census numbers to show declining tax bases and population. The villages should show current vacancy rates in the downtown, as well as vacant homes in the community.

The main thing will be identifying realistic projects that would help change the fortunes for a depressed area, projects that would add jobs, attract sales tax, and change the morale of the community.

Here are some suggestions for each community for projects as part of an application.

The congregation at the Albion United Methodist Church vacated this building a year ago and now holds church services at Christ Episcopal Church.

Albion: The “Downtown Revitalization Program” seems targeted to a place like Albion, a once prosperous and vibrant community.

The historic buildings are the envy of many in other communities because the wrecking ball didn’t knock downtown ornate structures from the mid to late 1800s. However, in Albion there are high vacancy rates in the downtown, including several three-story buildings with no tenants.

If there were millions made available, I think some of the buildings could be renovated for loft apartments, a boutique hotel, restaurants, bakery, art co-ops and studios.

One possible project could be rehabbing a building into a local visitor center/discovery zone with exhibits about the canal, Medina sandstone, Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School and more.

There needs to be at least one signature project that would draw people downtown, feeding other businesses.

Albion might want to consider a project at the former United Methodist Church. Part of the building, the newer section with classrooms, might be able to be renovated into apartments. I think the church building could be made into a “Sacred Sites Discovery Center” that would talk about circuit riders in the early 1800s, and the many religious and social movements (abolition, prohibition, suffrage) that were strong in upstate in the 19th Century.

Albion would be an ideal place for such a museum/discovery center because it is home to the first Free Methodist Church in the world and has the seven churches, all with interesting stories, on the Courthouse Square.

A bronze statue of Charles Howard, shown here in his signature pose as Santa Claus, would be a draw on Main Street, while promoting community pride.

I’ve tried to advocate in the community how I think bronze statues for Santa (Charles Howard) and a quarryman display would help tell our community’s story, and also be a popular spot for locals and visitors. The statues would get people out of their cars, and moving in the downtown, helping local businesses.

I think creating a smaller version of Christmas Park (Howard’s popular Santa School and park on Phipps Road), and putting it on Main Street in a smaller building with a statue out front would be popular. It might make the most sense to put up a new building about 1,000 square feet and tell the local Santa story. The building could be open year-round as a bakery/coffee shop, while also functioning as a visitor center. I think next to the Presbyterian Church on a vacant lot would be an ideal spot. The village would own it and could lease it out to a business.

The old Holley High School has been vacant for about two decades in a prominent part of the community.

Holley: Redeveloping the old Holley High School could be a focal project. The building could be revived with apartments. Perhaps a portion of the building could be made into offices as well.

A massive renovation to the school would make for a dynamic gateway into the county on Route 31. Holley could also have a quarryman heritage display with a bronze statue or two in the front yard of the old school. Many of the most prolific quarries a century ago were in Holley and Hulberton. Those quarries brought thousands of immigrants to the community, hard-working and skilled stone masons from Italy, Poland and Britain.

Holley might also consider a nice fountain in front of the school. Holley already has two waterfalls and other fountains. It could market itself with a water theme, perhaps a logo with waterfalls and a fountain.

Other building owners could tap into the $10 million for building repairs and renovations.

Medina has a dramatic waterfalls next to the canal, but the site is largely inaccessible to the public.

Frances Folsom Cleveland is pictured in her official White House portrait. She married Grover Cleveland in 1886 at a ceremony at the White House. She was 21, the youngest First Lady ever.

Medina: The downtown district is much more vibrant than many in Western New York, but there are still vacancies and buildings in need of repair in Medina.

I could see Medina creating a plan centering around the redevelopment of the Bent’s Opera House. The Orleans Renaissance Group wants to redevelop the site as a performing arts venue on the top floor with a restaurant and offices also in the dominant Main Street structure.

I see a lot of potential in the waterfalls by the Horan Road canal bridge. Making the site more accessible, with either an elevated platform by the towpath or a trail, would make Medina even more attractive.

Medina could also do a quarryman heritage display, or maybe it would be better to have Frances Folsom, the former First Lady from Medina, standing in the Canal Basin, holding hands with President Grover Cleveland.

All of these communities would benefit from better gateway signs, welcoming people into the community. I would try to incorporate Medina sandstone in a nice display leading into these communities.

We don’t know the rules of the grant yet, but Esposito, at the Feb. 25 meeting, was emphatic in urging struggling communities to put forth ideas for money.

I would encourage community leaders in each village to form task forces dream big and come up with ideas for improving the downtowns.

The governor said the money will “transform long-forgotten areas into vibrant neighborhoods where tomorrow’s workforce will want to live, work, and raise a family.”