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Finding A Vision For Downtown Jamestown

July 11, 2009 - John Whittaker
What should Jamestown to be?
How's that for a discussion question, huh?
We're surrounded by endless natural beauty - Chautauqua Lake, all those golf courses, Findley Lake, Bemus Point, Long Point and Allegany state parks. One time, just once, drive down Ramsey Road overlooking Chautauqua Lake and tell me that isn't one of the most beautiful sights you've ever seen. Why can't Jamestown be the hub for all of that? Why are we outsourcing our tourists? Why aren't we capitalizing more on what's around us?
In the midst of all the things you think about the week before a wedding, entertaining out-of-town guests ends up being one. Where can we send them to eat or hang out while we're finishing up wedding business. Where can you go to catch the Penguins game on Versus in the middle of Western New York? After the wedding, where do you tell them to go before they head to the hotel?
Dave, my best man, is originally from Erie and now lives and works near Cleveland. For a guy who likes the night life, well, Jamestown can be seen as lacking. I hate to say it, but I kind of had downtown envy.
Going to visit Dave in Erie, there are dozens of clubs and bars downtown, with everything in walking distance, and every stop packed with people. A while ago, when he first moved to Cleveland, we went down to the Flats and had a blast, stopping at probably six or seven different places, each with its own vibe, including a comedy club that had me busting a gut the whole time we ate dinner.
So, when it came time to show Dave a good time for my bachelor party, well, you can say I had a case of downtown envy. That's a tough one for a Downtown Jamestown Development Corp. board member to say honestly, but I wondered if I could show my best man as good a time as he had showed me.
As a city, we pay a lot of lip service to the under-25 population. Is there a concrete step we can take? How do we help people take our vacant properties and make them part of a thriving downtown? Can you have a tourist destination, as we want to be, with so few places for people to go? Restaurants are great during the day, but when you have people downtown, what can they do? There are a lot of dark places downtown at night.
The Pub is one of my favorite places in the world. When I want a beer after work, that's where you can find the Whitless Wonder. At this point of my life, tons of people and noise aren't my thing - a quiet beer, talking about sports or happenings in the news is much more my style.
I also know it isn't the style of a lot of younger people.
Now, before we get much farther, let me say this up front -- I love this place. I love this city. I grew up in Panama, and will be the first to tell people living here is what you make of it. Every weekend, there are cultural festivals, special events, concerts and such to keep yourself busy, if you choose. I'm not saying living here stinks, and don't want to be mistaken as such.
Someday, I want to take my son to The Pub and show him Jim McCusker's jerseys and introduce him to Sammy. I look forward to taking him to the train station and showing him what it used to be. I want to take him out on a boat in Chautauqua Lake, take him tubing and fishing and all the stuff I did with my stepdad. We'll go to the Jammers and see the next big thing ply his trade in our backyard. I'll show him the Robert H. Jackson Center and explain how such a brilliant and important man got his start here, that smart people can make their mark on the world. I'll show him the Lucy-Desi Center, because it's remarkable that Lucille Ball started out in our city.
So, let's nip that whole "he's just another pessimistic prick" talk right in the bud. To be honest, I'm a booster for this area. A healthy Jamestown is good for all of us, isn't it? It means viable businesses, keeps my job and your job here for a while, and means we're more than just a road sign between Buffalo and Erie.
We're talking about moving forward, not griping about what isn't here and who's fault it is that Jamestown isn't what we think it should be. There's enough backbiting and sniping in this town sometimes to rival reality TV. Call it The Real Citizens of Jamestown and put it on Bravo - it'd be a big hit.
But, I digress.
Walking around downtown, I see some of the empty storefronts and can visualize what that storefront should be, or at least, what it should be in my warped reality. I could see the Grant Building being a cool book store, like a Borders or something of that ilk - an acoustic guitar on a Friday night, coffee from Coopers and flipping through the pages of a David Halberstam book.
I can see the yellow and black former Nextel building on Cherry Street as a cool Irish bar, with a dance club on the first floor and a quieter, relaxed room upstairs. Call it Finnegan's, an idea from my buddy Finn. Tell me the building next to the Fenton Building on Second Street, the former TV repair store, wouldn't be a great jazz club for our Infinity-trained musicians to populate after they age out of the program.
It can be done. I swear to God it can. The possibilities are endless.
Just look at the Fenton Building. Sure, the first floor was really nice when it was Chautauqua Music. But now, after years of work by Brian Taylor, that building is thriving, the home office to state senators, U.S. Congressmen, lawyers and a really nice restaurant and banquet facility.
I know it takes money to do such a renovation, but it also takes vision -- the vision to take a vacant, crappy piece of property and turn it into a viable business. It takes the guts to step out onto a limb and try to make our downtown as cool a place as others we visit.
The Riverwalk is nice, a piece, but what can you really do with it? It walks along a small river, behind buildings. It is absolutely better than it used to be, but will people really visit it to walk behind Friendly's and the Jock Shop to end up near the BPU, looking at the back end of the train station? Or, do you want to look at the back end of old, no-longer useful industrial buildings? It's not my idea of a romantic stroll with my wife, to be honest, at least, it's not in its current incarnation.
What can we do with the Riverwalk to make it as cool as it could be? What should be done to make the Chadakoin River someplace to go? The Urban Design Plan says the city needs an attraction that will bring 200,000 people downtown -- what is that attraction and how do we support it? What does downtown need, and who can we find to help pay for it? What are your favorite ideas for buildings downtown? What should fill our vacant storefronts? Should there be more nightlife? What should it all look like? What industries can you bring into our area to generate the disposable income to support a thriving downtown? If a building has been vacant for 25 years, should it just be torn down?


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