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Empty Downtowns

Opinions vary on how to fill vacant buildings

November 29, 2009
By MICHAEL ANICH, The Leader-Herald

The prescription for revitalization of the downtowns in the Glove Cities isn't totally clear, but most agree it involves a partnership between the municipalities and the business community and a little luck with the economy.

Empty storefronts have become commonplace in recent years in the heart of the cities of Gloversville and Johnstown, although local officials are continually trying to improve the downtown areas. The Route 30A corridor - especially in Johnstown - has attracted more business action than the downtowns, where stores aren't usually open as late.

Groups such as the Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry, itself located in downtown Gloversville, are constantly working with their members and local politicians to help make the downtown areas more vibrant.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

A pedestrian walks by a row of empty storefronts on South Main Street in downtown Gloversville on Monday.

"I don't think it's an easy thing," chamber President Wally Hart says of downtown revitalization.

As a chamber, he said his agency approaches the task with a "mall management" point of view. Hart said questions related to downtown improvement have to be asked as if you were asking about malls - why do people go, are there a variety of attractions, do the stores have consistent times and is the shopping area safe for the consumer?

Hart said any downtown area has to be "convenient and attractive" to buyers. It also can be enhanced by the architecture of the buildings, which in both cities is often from a bygone era and can be an "incredible resource," Hart said.

Hart said the chamber is making rejuvenation of downtowns in Fulton County as one of its major goals for 2010.

"Gloversville has a very large downtown," Hart said, which makes it more noticeable when stores are empty.

Michael Reese, chief operating officer of the Fulton County Economic Development Corp., said his agency can assist in sparking the downtown business climate, but that assistance is limited.

"I think the EDC could help play a role in helping to redevelop the downtown area," Reese said.

He said the EDC can work with the chamber and groups such as Gloversville's Business Improvement District, or BID. BID is an independent, not-for-profit organization established in 2000. It partners with property owners, businesses, arts and cultural institutions, social service providers, government agencies and elected officials in a united effort to revitalize downtown Gloversville.

The EDC's real estate component - the Crossroads Incubator Corp. - is working on a housing effort downtown that it says will assist in making downtown Gloversville more attractive. It plans to build 25 condominiums at the former Estee Middle School after securing a $2.5 million grant.

Reese said the federal government still provides tax credits for restoring old buildings in downtown areas, but those tax incentives are for buildings that are on the National Historic Registry.

He said people also have to understand that any economic development efforts to bring retail businesses to a downtown area are up to the business themselves.

"We don't direct them to where they ought to locate," Reese said.

Officials from both of the Glove Cities see the need to revitalize downtown, but the task can be easier said than done.

"The great dilemma here is finding a balance," Johnstown Mayor Sarah Slingerland said.

She said the city is constantly weighing the business activity on the outskirts of the city, the "external growth" such as Route 30A -also known as the Arterial Highway - versus "internal growth" downtown. She said the downtown area of Johnstown is "redefining itself."

"It will never be like the way it used to be," the mayor said, with various types of shops in a row.

But Slingerland said the buildings on West and East Main streets in Johnstown are still selling, although sometimes for non-traditional business uses.

As an example, she mentioned the old Pagano Glove factory on Church Street next to the Johnstown Post Office, which has apartments but also is looking to add retail stores.

Slingerland said a city's downtown can still be an important part of a community through events, if not strictly through business activity. She said that can include holiday events, craft fairs, parades and the Johnstown Citizens Band, which performs Friday nights during the summer in the downtown bandshell. She said those activities can even attract business in the future.

"Our downtown does have a sense of vitality," Slingerland said.

She said downtown Johnstown also has an ongoing reputation as being "business-friendly," including when it comes to code-enforcement issues. She said the city also tries to keep up a clean appearance downtown.

Outgoing Gloversville Mayor Tim Hughes declined to answer phone calls for this story.

Gloversville Mayor-elect Dayton King, who assumes office Jan. 1, said he has some ideas to revitalize his downtown, and one is as simple as more participation in meetings.

"Immediately, what's been missing," he said, is Gloversville government involvement at BID meetings. He said the city is supposed to have three representatives attend BID meetings at 8 a.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at the chamber. But, he said, that involvement hasn't always been there.

King also said he would like to slow the traffic down through the four corners of Main and Fulton streets and make Gloversville a true "destination" for people driving through downtown.

"Right now, you see the amount of cars that go through North Main Street," he said. "I want to make Gloversville a destination instead of a thoroughfare."

He said he would like to see certain businesses fill certain niches downtown. He said he also would like to see policemen walking downtown, especially in the summer.

King said it is sad he doesn't see as many "young adults" - teens and college students - walking downtown. He would like to see more attractions for them. He said when he lived in Northville, there were places for young people to hang out, have lunch and play video games.

He said he would also like to see more Fulton-Montgomery Community College students use downtown.

Sue Casey, owner of three buildings in downtown Gloversville at 42, 51-55 and 52 S. Main St., said she has ideas, but times are tough. She has created apartment housing and retail business. She doesn't have anything in the works right now.

"In this economy, I can see everything standing still," she said. "I'll be waiting to see how the economy goes."

Robert Cross, a longtime city of Johnstown resident, real estate agent and building owner on West Main Street, said the shift of business activity from downtown Johnstown to Route 30A has been going on for 50 years or more.

"The first thing that comes to mind is the construction of the arterial [highway] ," the 90-year-old Cross said. "That took place in 1952. That began the development of national stores along there. That was probably the primary reason for the gradual decline in [downtown] Johnstown. It's been very, very gradual."

He said various Johnstown mayors, most notably the late Harvey Mansfield, were instrumental in working with the state to allow new business to flourish on Route 30A.

Cross said there actually was a block with businesses where Johnstown's downtown park now stands that had to be torn down because buildings became vacant due to inactivity.

"You look at Gloversville and that's very sad," Cross said. "As a Johnstown resident, I'd like to see it prosper."

Cross said "nothing stays the same," but he would like to not see as much squabbling between the elected officials of both cities. He said people look at both cities when they come into the area, and it only hurts both downtowns when the cities fail to work together.

"That's really too bad," Cross said. "We're in this together."



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