Friday, October 21, 2011

Main Street, Mount Morris, NY

Day 1, Mt. Morris Consultation

Mount Morris, NY, hit the news when Greg O'Connell began to invest there. O'Connell was a major developer of Red Hook, and had learned that it was a good idea to assemble as large a piece of land as possible, he told a group of planners from Pratt today. So he quietly worked to buy as many buildings on Main Street as he could. He hoped that he could help rejuvenate the area the way he helped in Red Hook: doing things that benefited everybody in the community. He showed pictures of the before and after which demonstrated the thorough and thoughtful work of bringing historic buildings back to life and the even more complex work of finding the entrepreneurs whose ideas and savvy could fill the buildings with useful restaurants, stores and services.

O'Connell has worked with Professor Ron Shiffman of Pratt Institute over the years. Shiffman put together a planning studio that will offer advice for the future of Main Street. Knowing my interest in Main Streets, Shiffman invited me along.

As if to prove the point that O'Connell really wanted to listen -- and wanted us to listen as well -- he invited local leaders to meet with us in Theater 101 on Main Street. More than 40 local leaders showed up for an afternoon of conversation about the future of Main Street. I was touched by the number of people who said, "I'd written Mount Morris off. I didn't believe it could come back." They sounded like they were still surprised that it had. As the afternoon conversation went on, I began to glimpse how each of those people had contributed to the revitalization of the area. O'Connell broke a logjam, and allowed good ideas to flow.

The area seems to be a site of good ideas: the local paper noted that the Rochester area was leading upstate New York in economic recovery, having added more than 10,000 jobs to the economy across all sectors, including manufacturing. Creative ideas, willingness to innovate, a tradition of solidarity, and openness of government all seem to be part of the mix, from what I heard today.

"They're willing to do little things, to recognize that 50 businesses each employing 2 people is the same as one business that employs 100," Shiffman commented.

What more is needed? One complaint that came up in the afternoon's conversation was about traffic. I tried to cross Main Street myself and was terrified. "But the traffic is an asset," one participant said. French unbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart has commented that towns that live by the highway have to play a careful balancing game: they want to slow traffic so people will get interested in their town and stop, but they can't slow it too much or drivers will get mad at them.

To be continued...

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