Finally West State Street is getting back on the map.
From the Ithaca Journal:
West State Street experiencing a rebirth
Locally owned businesses finding success
By Krisy Gashler •email@example.com • September 10, 2010, 7:35 pm
Though its prospects have waxed and waned, West State Street has been a vital part of Ithaca's business district for almost as long as Ithaca has existed.
The area west of The Commons to Meadow Street hosts an eclectic mix: car repair shops, diners, bars, coffee shops, second-hand stores and a variety of health-related services. And while the area has recently seen an influx of new or relocated businesses -- Kitchen Theatre, Mama Goose, Felicia's Atomic Lounge -- it also hosts some of the longest-standing businesses in town -- the State Diner, Napa Auto Parts and Bishop's (though the hardware store closed last year, the carpet store remains open).
Napa owner Jeff Klein said his parents opened the franchise in 1943. He took over in 1972, he said.
A sign that times have always been changing, Klein said in the 1930s, the Napa building was used for Ithaca's Farmers' Market.
"They would sell live chickens out the back," he said.
Impact of The Commons
Among those who've been on West State Street (now co-designated Martin Luther King Jr. Street) for a while, there's general agreement business began slipping when the city permanently closed the street to build The Commons in 1974.
Klein and Stanley Goldberg, former owner of Bishop's, both said The Commons changed West State Street for the worse, cutting off traffic and business.
"We're just seeing it come back now," Klein said.
Former Ithaca Planning Director Thys Van Cort said New York state's decision to widen Green and Seneca Streets and make those the primary thoroughfares hurt West State Street businesses, and then "the Commons was sort of the final nail in the coffin -- it put several businesses out of business."
Even so, Van Cort said he still thinks the city made a good decision with The Commons and he credits its creation with downtown being able to "hold its own" against the Pyramid Mall, which was built in 1975.
"You can never prove it, but you can certainly argue that without The Commons, downtown might have really gone downhill quickly," he said. "In retrospect, I think it was a very acceptable tradeoff for the city, but nevertheless those actions do have consequences."
For decades afterward, the city worked to repair the damage and revitalize West State, Van Cort said. He remembered four plans for West State Street off the top of his head.
"We did a series of actions where we helped businesses by subsidizing the reconstruction of their storefronts, we provided free design service, we gave low-interest loans, we did a bunch of stuff like that, but it never really seemed to take off," Van Cort said.
Street project pays off
But something has changed, and there's now general agreement among city officials, long-time business owners, and relative newcomers that West State Street is taking off.
Some credit the city's $1.8 million investment in 2001 to rebuild the street with business-luring underground fiber optic cable and red brick paving, matching sidewalks and decorative street lamps on top.
Others point to Dave Brumsted and his award-winning overhaul of Ithaca Foreign Car Service.
Still others thank Kevin Cuddeback and his traffic-drawing Gimme! Coffee.
And the list goes on.
"The real renaissance for that street has all been since the street was rebuilt," Van Cort said. "I think this is a successful example of the government setting the table and then the private sector turning on the juice and revitalizing an area."
Current City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish said West State today as compared to 10 years ago is far improved, and both public and private investment should get the credit.
"It's really interesting on the weekend nights -- that area is just hopping. It's so energized. It's kind of like being on Aurora Street," Cornish said. "It hasn't been like that in a long time. So I definitely think it has paid off and I'm hoping that it will continue."
The city has never done a study to analyze changes in sales and property taxes on West State Street before and after the almost $2 million investment, according to Cornish, Van Cort and City Controller Steve Thayer.
"I don't know if the investment has been made back, but I certainly think that if you add the increased decline in property values, and it's 10 years later and (if) we hadn't made those improvements, I think it would be a much different picture," Cornish said.
Another big government investment that helped revitalize the street was Tompkins County's decision to locate its social services building to West State Street, which they did right around the time the city re-did the street, Cornish said.
Cuddeback moved into his State Street Gimme! location just as the street was being torn up in 2001.
"Obviously at some point in time a lot of energy really focused on making The Commons the downtown district, but I think that even though the emphasis at some point in time really focused on The Commons, this (West State Street) is an old school commercial district," he said. "I think the city making that investment or that decision to sort of view this corridor as really it ought to be -- a pedestrian-friendly block -- and therefore to make it attractive, I think that those investments made a big difference."
Bishop's Goldberg isn't convinced that the street re-do really made the difference.
"I think it made the area better looking. Whether that draws any customers is questionable," he said.
Instead, he and others cite investments made by nearby property owners, especially Brumsted's in 2007.
"He went out on a limb and invested a lot of money," Napa's Klein said. "It really helped the neighborhood."
Stephen Nunley and Rachel Lampert, respectively managing and artistic directors for the Kitchen Theatre, also credit the turnaround to the opening of Fine Line Bistro and Felicia's Atomic Lounge.
Lampert, who's lived in Ithaca for 16 years, said she went to West State Street for Bishop's and for City Health Club, but otherwise wasn't drawn to the area.
"I do remember it being like downtown sort of dropped off around Albany Street. That was the end, except for these very sporadic places, and now there's a very different feel," she said. "Who knows what brings people in? What makes people feel comfortable in a neighborhood and feel like it's a growing, expanding neighborhood? For some people it might be that they have those bricks on the street and it feels like, 'This is a real place.'"
One of the biggest factors that led Kitchen Theatre to West State Street was the relative affordability, even compared to similar properties just a couple of blocks away, Nunley and Lampert said.
Lampert said they looked at a similar building just two blocks closer to The Commons and "the asking price of that was almost double the asking price for this."
"When a place is not on the radar, you can get a much better price," Nunley added.
Cuddeback also credited affordability for the success of West State Street, and for the fact that it hosts so many locally owned businesses, operated by people who own their own building.
"You often hear complaints about the inflated or unachievable or unsustainable prices of The Commons and you know for business owners, it just makes it really challenging," he said. "We own this building that we're in on West State Street and I think you have a different attitude about your neighborhood when you own the space you're in rather than if you're leasing. And of course I feel fortunate to be paying a mortgage and taxes rather than just paying a lease."
'Neighborhood' coming back
Leah Houghtaling, co-owner of Felicia's Atomic Lounge, said she immediately saw potential in West State Street when they opened in 2004.
"It's a beautiful street. I liked the idea of being near Bishop's, the State Street Diner, Time Warner, Cornell Laundry, even Napa Auto Parts; they all added to the feeling that we were landing in an established neighborhood," she said by e-mail. "Since we opened, we've seen more people venturing out of The Commons and into the West End for shopping and entertainment. The progression feels natural. Every year there are more new businesses and more flowerboxes on the West End. A sense of community has thrived, and the concept of 'neighborhood' is coming back."
Kelly Moreland re-located her Mama Goose second-hand children's clothing store to West State in 2007 and opened Mimi's Attic, a second-hand furniture store, this year. She said if there's any unifying theme for the area, it would be "kind of a pioneering spirit."
"I do feel like people are kind of doing things their own way; they have customers that will seek them out. There's a lot of entrepreneurial spirit," she said. "And personality. Small businesses with big personality."
Kitchen Theatre's Lampert said she's surprised by the number of businesses operated by relatively young people.
"There are a lot of people making a first entrepreneurial investment," she said. "I think that's kind of interesting in a town that has a lot of history."
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