ELMIRA, NY (WSKG) – As Elmira plans out how to spend $10 million to revitalize its downtown, the city is looking for some life. There doesn’t seem to be much in the area.
A symbol of Elmira’s downtown revitalization might be the Lake Street Bridge. The bridge is currently closed to all traffic: pedestrians, cars, everybody. But those in charge of the revitalization want to change that.
It can feel pretty empty as you walk the streets in downtown Elmira. There are vacant storefronts, few places for people to gather.
“It was like New York City”
It makes Angie’s Main Street Cafe stand out. The cafe is a quaint place. Classic rock plays quietly in the background. A meal bar faces a sizzling grill. Angelina Guglielmo worked as a manager at a restaurant in this exact location before buying it three years ago and turning it into this cafe.
“Naively, I thought, ‘oh you just have the checkbook it’s not much different, I’m already the manager,'” said Guglielmo. “When, in reality, it’s so much different. It’s the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Guglielmo said she gets pretty good business, but that’s mostly thanks to regulars. People don’t see Elmira as a destination.
“I think we all know – it’s just unfortunate – after the flood, we’ve never been rebuilt down here and if you ask all the old timers they say ‘It was like New York City,'” she said.
Floods, job loss and an aging population have all left their mark on Elmira, but now, there’s $10 million at the city’s disposal. That sounds like a lot, until it starts getting spent.
“It goes really quickly when you have a lot of opportunities and a lot of needs that you want to meet,” said Mike Krusen, who works in economic development and is helping run the committee in charge of the revitalization.
Elmira has “good bones,” according to Krusen, but the city’s in rough shape.
“What we don’t have is that solid core like a Market Street that you go to or an Ithaca Commons or the waterfront in Watkins Glen,” Krusen said. “That’s the capacity that we’re trying to build.”
Krusen and the committee are looking for a solid start to the build-up downtown. They want to support proven business people.
“No offense to somebody who says ‘ya know, I’d love to start a restaurant, I’ve never done it before, but I’d love to do that’ we don’t need that right now,” Krusen explained. “I’m not suggesting that day doesn’t come, that you look for entrepreneurial opportunities for people, but we need a foundation of successful businesses that have staying power, that have experience.”
Krusen wants to help those proven businesses. If a known craft brewery needs equipment, the revitalization money could help with that. He said they’re talking to firms now.
Poverty and Population
There’s another truth about Elmira that’s tough to ignore – its poverty, which hovers around 50 percent in some areas. The city received a million dollars from the state to develop a plan to fight it.
Susan Payne is a consultant helping run that effort. She says her group, along with the revitalization committee, is trying to figure out the best way to spend money from both programs.
“We’re looking at your blighted neighborhood conditions and what kind of capital improvements, plus support programs that can be implemented that are complementary and can leverage the two pools of dollars,” said Payne.
Simply put, Elmira needs more people.
Some are returning, thanks to a manufacturing push along Interstate 86, but, like a lot of upstate cities, Elmira wants attract younger people – people who will bring their dollars downtown.
A Place You Want to Live
Of course, there’s a big question: is there stuff to do because there are people, or do people come because there’s stuff to do?
“The reality is we have to do both together,” Krusen explained. “We have to build that capacity simultaneously. So that would be our trick – to convince people that downtown Elmira is somewhere you want to live.”
Take where we started, with the Lake Street Bridge. The DRI money could help turn that into a bike and pedestrian way – putting it in the “Stuff To Do” column.
Plans are due to New York State in about a month.