story and photos by Marguerite Abbott
Ask anyone in the general area of the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York and you hear the words “renaissance,” “positive energy” and “good changes” happening in the small city that sits on the north shore of Seneca Lake.
It is an energy that has been building over recent decades, carried on by the efforts of many to restore the former vibrancy that Geneva once knew. Incorporated in 1812, this community that 13,160 citizens call home has been through the peaks and valleys that have occurred in many towns and cities across the country.
It is Geneva’s time to shine again. The hard work that so many have contributed in the struggle to resolve the tough problems is paying off. The city rightly calls itself “Uniquely Urban,” and it is unique in many ways.
The city government and the community had set out to weave a collaboration that would pick up the threads of all the diverse members of its population, from the academic institutions, the medical community, students and artists, merchants of the city, working families, and those struggling with poverty.
Matt Horn, city manager since 2008, has been credited with much of the progress in Geneva, but is clear in his insistence that the integration of a city government committed to inclusive prosperity coupled with talented and equally committed community members is the combination that has made the result so strong. The state of New York has taken notice, and in June Geneva was granted a 10 million dollar award (one of ten competitive statewide grants offered) after delivering an inspiring plan for the city that “emphasized projects that would impact the social and environmental fabric of Geneva.”
“This is not about bringing prosperous people here, but to make sure anyone here who wants to be prosperous has access to all the resources we offer, stated Horn. “There are cool people here, and I don’t want this to become a place where they can’t afford to live.”
Some of the grant will go to addressing the long standing quandary of connecting downtown to the lakefront. This will be remedied by reducing lanes, enhancing sidewalks, creating landscaped medians and improving crossings. An innovative project near the existing lakefront pedestrian tunnel under Rtes. 5 & 20 will be the creation of the Lake Tunnel Solar Village. 24 vacation solar-powered rentals and 28 micro-apartments will demonstrate the LifeCube concept; small housing units manufactured in Geneva, and the brainchild of Ryan Wallace and his company, Small Grid.
The Dove Block will also get a shot in the arm for efforts to transform the historic building at Castle and Exchange Streets. The building will highlight the work of Geneva’s own abstract impressionist artist, Arthur Dove, who painted 130 of his paintings from the third floor of the building in the 1930’s, looking out at Seneca Lake. Retired HWS professor Jim Spates is one of the folks spearheading efforts to create a non-profit tribute to this native son. The art world knows about him, and there is no other museum dedicated to his work—one of which recently sold at Christie’s for 5.4 million dollars. Watch this space … and go to savethedoveblock.org to get more info!
Some of what Geneva has in store are a public marina, restoration of the old Patent Cereal Block which will add storefronts and apartments, a new brewery downtown, upgrades to the Smith Opera House, and free broadband Internet access for downtown. Intersection improvements, and an arched gateway sign over Exchange Street near Lake Street are part of the coming improvements as well.
At the same time, Governor Cuomo announced that the Visitor Center at the lake will become a New York State Welcome Center, partnering with the New York Wine & Culinary Center from Canandaigua. The expanded building will be renovated into a “showcase” for visitors to the Finger Lakes and offer New York State beverages and food.
Some of the programs requested but not funded this round are the Resiliency Center, aimed to have services that already address poverty-related issues housed in one complex designed to make the social services more efficiently delivered ; a Senior living complex at the south end of Exchange Street, and funding for the Arts. These can all be applied for again, as they are part of the Strategic Plan.
Meanwhile, business in Geneva is strong and picking up steam with the recent news of the award. Yvette Ortiz, owner of Earthly Possessions, when asked how she liked being downtown, quickly replied “I love it!” Ortiz, who opened her jewelry and gift shop in 1998, said the number of people coming to shop downtown has increased. Tour buses park in the municipal parking lot, visitors grab a sandwich at Parker’s Grill or Eddie O’Brien’s, or perhaps pasta at a new eatery across the street, La Mia Bella Sicilia. They then shop, with choices of new and established businesses offering an array of hand crafted, local and interesting wares. The Finger Lakes Gift and Lounge (or “Flounge”) is a delightful and eclectic shop offering many of these items, and a historic and quaint setting to enjoy locally ground coffee, freshly made salads, local ice cream or even a glass of Finger Lakes wine or beer. Across the street, Stomping Grounds offers vintage ephemera and other treasures; a place where you can easily lose track of time.
Don Liberatore, owner of The Frame Shop for 35 years, said he is excited about the energy he feels going on in Geneva. He sees young people drawn to starting their own businesses right out of college, and many are doing it right here in Geneva.
That’s not a coincidence. The city has taken an aggressive stance in helping small businesses get started by offering grant initiatives and low interest loans to encourage folks to set up businesses here. To increase the odds of succeeding, they require that those who would like to take advantage of these supports meet with a small business consultant retained by the city. Business plans are reviewed and recommendations made. As a result, Geneva’s success rate of new businesses is 75%, while the national average is below 50%.The city also works with members of the local business community to operate Port 100, a co-working space to help remote workers and entrepreneurs network and build their practices.
Victor Pultinas and Jenna Lavita are happy beneficiaries of this trend, winning Geneva’s Race for Space award in 2013, which allowed them to open Lake Drum Brewing. Both recent graduates of HWS, the winemakers/brewers/artists define themselves as part of the “creative experimental style of the Geneva revolution.” They brew their craft beer on site and make cider from apples grown on their property in Waterloo. They are also the first to produce alcoholic beverages within the city since Prohibition. Linden Street displays one of Victor’s other gifts: a stunning building –sized mural.
Andrew King was a sophomore when he won the HWS Pitch Contest with fellow classmate Zachary Lerman with designs for stickers. $10,000 and 4 years later, Space Vinyl Design & Print Co. is at home on Exchange Street, with expanded services and thriving.
This trend meshes well with the businesses that have been mainstays in Geneva for many years. The Burrall insurance company, for example, has been in the same location on Linden Street for 188 years! The Burrall family ancestors were around for the founding of Geneva itself, and since then the family has never stopped doing business here. Not far behind, Lynch Furniture has been furnishing homes in the Geneva area since 1905.
The Studio Salon, owned by Nancy Colizzi and daughter Cindy Kerr since 1993, is a family affair, with other daughter Carol Lynch helping in the daily operations. “There were nights when my car was the only one in the parking lot when I left work,” Cindy stated. “Now I have trouble finding it!”
Joe and Steven Fragnoli, owners of Super Casuals clothing store, have been on Seneca Street since 1978, and have an online customer base of over 100,000. “We plan to keep our store here though, this is where our roots are,” Joe stated.
Stroll around the corner to Linden Street, the quaint one way “cobbled” street to find some of the area’s finest dining and nightlife destinations. You can taste some of the best the area has to offer at the FLX Table, host your next special occasion at Sophie Elkin’s Left Bank venue, grab a glass of wine at James Emory-Elkin’s Microclimate wine bar or a cocktail at the Linden Social Club, co-owned by Emory-Elkin and Joe Kennedy. Or perhaps a sausage and sandwich at Finger Lakes Sausage and Beer, or freshly baked cookies at the Simply Sweets Bakery. These are only some of the establishments that have migrated to what has become a fun place to be. The street is cordoned off for weekends during the summer to enjoy music and food under twinkling lights. As Neil Sjoblom, whose photography business has been on Linden for 40 years said, “Linden Street has always been special.”
Serendipity is a magical nook on the corner of Castle and Exchange Streets owned by Linda Viertel. Opened for a year, it represents over 70 artists and crafts people and a treasure trove of antiques; Linda is part of the magic. When asked what she liked the most about being downtown, she led me to the spot where you could see the lake…”Need I say more?” she asked.
One of the busiest places downtown is The Bike Shop opened 22 years ago by Jim Hogan. They have an impressive inventory, from beginner bikes to what the most sophisticated triathlon rider would want, in addition to top notch mechanics. But the overriding (no pun intended) reason they have such a good name is that Jim and his staff clearly love what they do, and riders far and wide know it.
Valerie Pierce, co-owner with Veronica Mortensen of Quilty Pleasures, offers a kaleidoscope of fabrics and classes to show you how to use them. The most common complaint she hears is that there’s not enough parking for all their customers…a happy problem to work on!
So, have breakfast at the now iconic Water Street Café, a slice of quiche at The City Café, a treat at Geneva Gelato, work on your laptop over a latte at Opus, Korean Fried Chicken at the Red Dove, Irish Shepard’s Pie at Beef and Brew, Sicilian Calamari at Halseys, or a family sized burrito at Char-Burrito. There is even a new Gluten Free restaurant if it suits! Then stroll around and see what else is emerging- more at the reading of this article than at the writing of it.
Years ago a friend once said “You can leave Geneva and go around the world, or you can stay in Geneva and let the world go around you.” Now, it seems, you can stay in Geneva—and the world comes to you.