‘Sandstone Trail’ urged for 31

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 19 June 2013 at 12:00 am

Consultant recommends making Bent’s Opera House a ‘cultural hub,’ telling sandstone story and highlighting local foods

Photos by Tom Rivers – Ted Pietrzak, a consultant hired by the Orleans Renaissance Group for a Medina development plan, believes Medina and all of Orleans would benefit by promoting its canal and sandstone heritage. He is pictured under the Canal Culvert in Ridgeway, a sandstone structure that goes under the canal.

MEDINA – A consultant hired by the Orleans Renaissance Group to develop a plan for Medina’s future has proposed establishing a Sandstone Trail along Route 31.

That trail would not only benefit Medina, but all of Orleans County, especially the canal towns that are rich in sandstone architecture, said Ted Pietrzak, a consultant who presented the proposal on Tuesday to the Medina Business Association and county officials.

“The Erie Canal and sandstone architecture may be the two most widely recognized attributes of the region,” Pietrzak said.

He told the MBA and county officials that there hasn’t been a “cohesive and sustainable tourism plan” to fully capitalize on those assets.

Pietrzak was hired by the ORG to focus on a redevelopment plan for the Bent’s Opera House, a mostly vacant building that dominates a corner of Main Street in Medina. That three-story sandstone building would make for a great beginning for the Sandstone Trail, with exhibits and displays about the area’s sandstone history, Pietrzak said.

The first floor space at Bent’s should also tell a history of the immigrants who worked in the quarries and the site should highlight some of spectacular structures they built locally, in the region and throughout the state. In fact, an unofficial sandstone trail already runs along the canal, with Medina sandstone buildings from Buffalo to Albany, and even into New York City, Pietrzak noted.

Pietrzak sees the Bent’s Opera House as a high-profile building that could be used to tell the region’s sandstone story, while also showcasing local products.

The Bent’s site has room for the sandstone exhibit, and samplings of local food, art and culture, as well as more space for a first floor tenant, perhaps an Amish or Mennonite craftsman, Pietrzak said. The site should be developed into “a cultural hub,” he told the MBA.

The ORG has envisioned the second floor of Bent’s for a restaurant and the top floor as a performing arts venue. Pietrzak has ideas for those floors, but first wants to present that plan to the ORG board before making it public.

He presented the trail initiative Tuesday because he said it has potential to include many businesses and community stakeholders.

I met with Pietrzak in early May and drove him to sandstone sites north and south of the canal from Medina to Albion. I’ve emailed him pictures from Hulberton and Holley. We share the belief that a Sandstone Trail would raise awareness for these structures, boost community pride, and would highlight other local “trails” that could intersect, including routes focused on cobblestones, Amish/Mennonite businesses, farm markets, and other local attractions.

He believes the trail and the attractions along the route would draw people from west of the county in Buffalo and Niagara Falls and east of Orleans in the Rochester area. If the trail is promoted with “a series of desirable experiences,” Pietrzak said people would come and stay for a few days.

A Sandstone Trail could run from Medina to Holley, with a stop at the Murray-Holley Historical Society Museum, a site that includes quarrymen photos and tools.

Pietrzak and I both addressed a planning committee at the county after he met with the Medina Business Association. If we pursue the trail, we need someone to take the lead and manage the project, including the minutia of securing permits for roadside signs. Some of these roadside markers could go on the existing Route 31 signs. That’s how Niagara County does many of its “Niagara Historic Trail” signs on 31.

Other communities have beer and wine trails that help connect wineries and breweries. The state helps pay for these, knowing that tourism dollars mean sales tax for the state and the local government. We could pursue a grant for the Sandstone Trail from the state. The governor and state legislators know about Medina Sandstone. The Million-Dollar Staircase in the state capitol building is made of our sandstone.

Pietrzak suggested there be town hall-style meetings, with two each in Medina, Albion and Holley to gauge public support for a trail, and solicit ideas on how it could be used to promote local businesses.

I think the trail should run from one end of the county to another, and we should have sandstone signs in each community with the name of the town or village. We might consider replacing some of the wooden signs with stone ones.

There’s a lot of features we could add, to build appreciation for our sandstone heritage, and draw people here to spend money at our businesses.

The trail grant could be part of a bigger sandstone grant application from Orleans County. I’m a member of Arts, Culture and History Subcommittee on Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. The subcommittee is trying to identify and build public support for projects that promote the area’s culture and history. Clearly, the immigrant quarrymen and Medina sandstone are a big part of our local, regional and state history and their story isn’t being told or showcased at a site.

In addition to the sandstone trail, there are two other projects that I think have a good shot at state funding and would give the area a lift. A bronze statue of a quarryman on Main Street in Albion and the Medina Sandstone Hall of Fame and Museum in Medina would complement the Sandstone Trail, and tell the story of the skilled stonecutters and some of the state’s finest buildings.