Mount Morris has found a formula for success. The can-do spirit that has taken hold of this Livingston County town could become the model of the century for a small town looking to reinvent itself.
Primarily known as the gateway to Letchworth State Park, Mount Morris is receiving recognition by community planners and newspapers from across the United States. The Main Street revitalization in Mount Morris is no miracle; rather, it is the result of concerted effort and planning.
A developer emerges with a vision
One person, Greg O’Connell, has been the primary catalyst for the extreme makeover that has taken place here. Thanks to him, a variety of locally owned businesses occupy the storefronts, now sporting spruced up façades and completely redone interiors.
O’Connell had a vision for a sustainable community, and from his days as a student in the 1960s at nearby SUNY Geneseo, his love for the area kept bringing him back to western New York.
After his retirement as a New York City detective, he poured his considerable energy into real estate development. Under his skillful leadership, the Red Hook section of Brooklyn was transformed from an industrial wasteland to a vital cultural area. Now, O’Connell has focused on developing Mount Morris.
Albert Einstein once said that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. In the case of Mount Morris, as the local economy eroded, pride was lost, and the town needed someone to come along with a new perspective.
A crossroads for shoppers in the Genesee Valley in the 1960s, Mount Morris had gone into a slow decline. “The lights started diminishing on Main Street as, one after another, the businesses closed,” said Mayor Harold Long. “I remember when you could buy anything from a deck of cards to an auto on Main Street. It was nothing different than any other small town in America when the malls pulled people to Rochester 40 miles away.”
A walking tour of Main Street
The reimaging taking place along Main Street has led to an upbeat attitude among storeowners and shoppers alike. On a recent tour, smiling faces were a common sight, even on a rainy day.
The Rainy Day Café and Bakery at 3 Canal Alley is a spot to stop and get oriented. It overlooks historic State Street and the newly named O’Connell Park, and borders the Greenway Trail, which stretches from Rochester to Belfast. The café occupies a brick building, formerly a tavern. Modern, stainless steel lighting mounted to plain cream walls creates an upscale, yet country feel. The three-story building had gone unnoticed and was deteriorating until O’Connell brought it back to life.
“I’m from Kentucky, and my husband and I came back here 15 years ago to his hometown. There was nothing to do here for our family,” explained Teresa Brado, co-owner of the café with husband, Mark. “We had a dream, and Greg helped us.”
The café is a good location to begin a walking tour of Main Street. There are six antique stores situated in between other shops.
“We’re not starting a business. We are starting a town. There is an American nostalgia for a small town atmosphere,” stated Betty Kunkle, owner of Ye Olde Outhouse, an arts and crafts establishment at 80 Main Street in the heart of the village.
Kunkle’s business was originally on nearby Route 408, but O’Connell convinced her to move to Main Street. Now, she is putting her energy into creating classes for crafters.
O’Connell believes in the concept of a balanced community where lives are interconnected. He bought up rundown buildings and had a vision of the variety of businesses that would work well together.
Along with the help of Louise Wadsworth, Livingston County Development Coordinator, O’Connell found ambitious local entrepreneurs to establish new places. The majority of storeowners are women, and each one has her aspirations. With affordable rents and constant encouragement from O’Connell’s hands-on management, renewal has begun.
“You have to find the right combination of businesses. Country living is all about the small touches, the festivals and kid activities,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell believes that the businesses must generate foot traffic. From young parents with baby strollers to the older population, people on foot infuse economic life into Main Street.
“I am bringing back childhood memories for grandparents to share,” said Jane Oakes, owner of Jane’s Pantry. Her shop at 84 Main Street features products made in New York. Old-fashioned penny candy jars filled to their brims are displayed prominently in her store with its turn-of-the century atmosphere.
Stephanie Wolfe, now the owner of Steffanelli’s Deli at 40 Main Street, first came to O’Connell’s attention when she wrote a grant for a deli at a small entrepreneurial training course at SUNY Geneseo. Using the cooking skills that she learned from her grandfather, she has created a “Stefanelli sandwich,” which is a specialty Italian sandwich served on French bread.
“Greg has a knack for picking the right people to put in the right businesses,” said Wolfe.
A third element in a sustainable community is a strong presence of the arts. Cathie and Rick Barry, who have lived in the community for more than 20 years, have a professional background in theater.
O’Connell told the couple: “Here’s your space. Let’s see what you can do.”
It was a dream come true for the two who have transformed 101 Main Street into Theatre 101, a venue for live musical performances, open mic nights and theatrical productions.
Collaboration among Main Street businesses
Mount Morris announced its rejuvenation in the spring of 2011 with the launch of YouTube ads and a new website, mtmorrisny.com. Merchants have banded together to share the cost of publicity, as well as to establish uniform business hours. Discussions have centered on the importance of keeping store windows lighted after hours, and in the daytime, utilizing sidewalk space optimally.
“We are not competing with each other, but rejoicing with each other when one of us has a good week,” said Kunkle from Ye Olde Outhouse. Business owners are also collaborating to develop novel ways of drawing visitors to the village. When Theatre 101 presented the play, “The Dining Room,” over two weekends with a cast of area actors, sets and props were borrowed from the neighboring antique stores and were available for purchase. Patrons were encouraged to enjoy dinner a short walk down the street at Questa Lasagna, owned by Chef Tim Knowles, before the show. The restaurant at 55 Main Street has established a reputation for creating dishes prepared with fresh ingredients and pasta made on the premises.
“Our history is being revitalized. I can see it on the faces of people as I walk around town,” stated Mayor Long. “It’s not just on Main Street either. People are fixing up their homes. Flower boxes are out.”
Merchants acknowledge that they will be fine-tuning their strategies into the winter months. They must find ways to ensure local people support a new Main Street and realize that the whole town has everything to gain from it. Skepticism needs to be transformed into a new, positive state of mind.
Early American frontier villages embraced optimism. How appropriate it is that Mount Morris, the home of Francis Bellamy, author of The Pledge of Allegiance, now stands united.
by Kay Thomas