Bump In Business
Establishments See Impact From?Comedy Center
Editor’s note: Cameron Hurst, an intern for the National Comedy Center, is a senior at St. Bonaventure University and a Jamestown native.
It happened by chance.
While surfing the internet one night at his home in Portland, Oregon, Rob T. stumbled upon information on two museums dedicated to the life of Lucille Ball in her hometown of Jamestown.
“All I remember thinking was, ‘Wow, my mom would love this. We have to go,'” he said referring to his mother Joyce, herself a huge ‘Lucy’ fan. “But, as I kept looking, I said to myself, ‘Wow, not only does this place exist — there’s a whole festival of comedy centered around Lucy’s birthday month.'”
“We had no idea what to expect,” added Joyce.
Soon after the discovery, they booked their flights and hotel rooms, arriving in Jamestown for the 2017 Lucille Ball Comedy Festival — during which Joyce was crowned the champion of that year’s trivia contest — and managed to return for the festival in 2018 — during which the pair were crowned champion of that year’s costume contest.
They also saw first-hand the development of the National Comedy Center and were excited to finally visit it last year.
“It’s just amazing,” Joyce said. “It’s so state of the art. I’ve really never seen anything like it.”
However, Joyce and Rob also managed to notice another development: Jamestown, itself.
“The difference is just incredible,” said Joyce. “We really have come to love Jamestown. There’s so much going on without it having the hustle and bustle of a bigger area like where we are from. It’s a cozy town.”
Out-of-town visitors to the National Comedy Center like Rob and Joyce are becoming commonplace in Jamestown not only during the annual comedy festival, but throughout the one calendar year since the center opened its doors to the public in August 2018.
And, as a result, area businesses are reaping the economic benefits of a booming tourist base.
Sam Lisciandro, bar manager of The Pub — a staple in downtown Jamestown since 1965 and the pair’s lunch choice on this day — has seen firsthand the common visitors between the National Comedy Center and his business.
“The best way you can tell is that they wear their bracelets,” Lisciandro said, referencing the National Comedy Center’s RFID band. “That’s the biggest indicator and we’ll always stop and talk with people about what they thought of the Comedy Center.”
Crown Street Roasting Company opened exactly one year prior to the opening of the National Comedy Center and is a popular stopping point for visitors in between the national attraction and the affiliated Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum complex located next door. Michael Bigney, co-owner along with his wife Sarah, is encouraged by the increase in traffic his business has seen due to common visitors.
“And, it’s been all year, too,” he said, regarding the business his coffee shop has seen. “It’s not just during the summer. Plus, with something as easy as the gift shop bags or visually the wrist band, we see who comes through here and where they’ve been. Because of it, we’ve definitely noticed a larger amount of traffic.”
Bigney added, “They’ve got the maps the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation put out and we ask them if they are on their way to the Comedy Center. We even get a sense of people who haven’t been there, they don’t have their wrist bands yet, but they are on their way. It’s a good amount.”
Adam Gullo and Heather Lepley have seen consistent business downtown since opening SAUCE, an Italian restaurant located up the street from the Lucy Desi Museum complex, in July 2017.
“We have been consistently busy since we opened,” Lepley said, noting their patrons come from a variety of backgrounds based on the situation. “We get a variety of out of town business from visitors to the area for the Comedy Center or family or just here on business. It really depends on what is going on throughout the week, such as movies (at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts) or other events.”
But, Lepley noted, a star-studded Lucille Ball Comedy Festival lineup always manages to help business.
“When there are big-name headliners such as Sebastian Maniscalco during Lucy Fest on Friday and Saturday were obviously as busy as we could get,” she said. “But, overall we have been consistent year-round when you look month to month.”
ORIGINS OF VISITORS
As for where they’re coming from and how long they’re staying, Lisciandro and Bigney noted that they’ve seen a common thread.
“Chicago, the west coast, New York, or traveling from New York to Chicago stopping here at the Comedy Center,” Bigney said. “A huge percent of our customer base is tourists. We do have a local base, too and have local regulars, but we service a lot of tourists and you wouldn’t think downtown Jamestown would, but we do. What’s good, too, is that they are coming from the west coast and bigger cities and they have coffee shops like ours there, so they can relate to it.”
“A lot of time they are just people on day trips,” Lisciandro added. “For example, we had people stop in from Chicago who flew in just for the day and flew back to Chicago that night and they loved it.”
Rosie K. and her family, natives of Mechanicsburg, Pa. were ‘daytrippers’ on this day, eating lunch at The Pub after visiting the National Comedy Center earlier in the day.
“Friends of ours from home had visited and had actually purchased a membership,” she said. “So, we decided we wanted to come and see what it was all about.”
What impressed her the most?
“The people,” she said. “The people here are just so nice, they’re welcoming and they’re really happy you’re here.”
“And him,” she added, pointing at Lisciandro, “he knows everybody that walks in. It’s just amazing. This atmosphere is super impressive. We really want to come back and spend more time.”
Pati Centi owns The Landmark, located a few blocks up the street from the National Comedy Center, and noted that families like Sherry’s are also frequenting her restaurant.
“What I found most interesting was that there were people coming in from the midwest who are on their way from Boston or New York City and stop here on the way. I haven’t seen that before,” she said. “I’ll always ask what brings them to Jamestown and they’ll say that they’ve heard a lot about it and so they stop to see what is here.”
She added, “They’ll always say that they wish they had more time. I find that fascinating — they’re not understanding how magnificent this place is, so that they’ll allot a certain amount of time, thinking that they’ll get into Jamestown like at 2, run over (to the Comedy Center), and come over for dinner. They’ll always say, ‘I wish we had planned on two days’ or, ‘The next time we come, we’re going to come for a longer period.'”
Peggy Kaltenmeier, owner of Forte, located in the heart of downtown adjacent to the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts, has also seen an influx of out-of-town visitors who wished they had stayed longer.
“Many guests comment that they came for just an overnight visit, but want to come back for longer to explore what else we have to do,” she said. “For the past year, our reservation book is often filled with names we do not recognize and out of town area codes. For example, one night I got to the restaurant at 3 p.m. and out of the 12 messages I had to call back, only one was to a local number.”
INCREASE IN BUSINESS
Overall, Kaltenmeier is incredibly pleased with not only the out-of-town visitors, but also the major increase in business that her and her staff has measured in the past calendar year.
“There’s an average increase in sales of about 12% from last year to this current year — which is huge for the restaurant business,” she said, emphasizing the magnitude of this development. “In May alone, we had a 30% increase, which is phenomenal for us in an industry where profit margins are very slim.”
Due to the increase, Kaltenmeier noted that she has had to make several tweaks in her restaurant’s day-to-day operation.
“Since our kitchen is pumping out 28% more food now than it did just three years ago, we have had to hire extra kitchen help to assist with prepping for the busy dinner service,” she said. “We require a hostess be available every day of the week, whereas in the past, we would just use a hostess on Fridays and Saturdays.”
She also explained that she’s seeing traffic during an hour she had never seen before.
“We find that mid-week, visitors come out to eat early after the NCC closes, which is filling a void we had previously,” she said of the hour after the Comedy Center closes at 5 p.m. on weekdays. “Most locals do not come out to eat until 6 p.m. or later.”
Lisciandro, however, has seen an increase in his lunch crowds.
“It’s every day,” Lisciandro said, especially on this day during which he and his staff were in the midst of their third wave of lunch at 3:30 p.m. “Our lunches have been more packed and since summer started it’s been nonstop. They’re longer lunches.”
Shawbucks, located directly across the street from the Comedy Center campus, has also seen an increase in summer business, according to owner Kurt Johnson who also noted that he has considered opening his Press Room restaurant up for lunch.
“I’m feeling an economic pressure to hire more and I’m seeing the potential demand to be open for lunches, too,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of expensive to make money at lunch time, but the volume could offset and it looks like we are approaching that.”
Johnson’s business has also benefited from the tremendous publicity after hosting a televised interview between Dan Rather and Dan Aykroyd for Rather’s AXS TV program entitled “The Big Interview” in August of 2018.
“That was huge,” Johnson said. “They were looking for a location and Tom Benson (National Comedy Center Project Chairman) reached out to me two weeks prior to the event and asked if I could shut down from the public for four hours to do an interview with Dan Rather and Dan Aykroyd. Usually, that’s risky to shut down for that long, but this publicity you can use for 10 years. That was a huge experience and I just knew we had to do it.”
THE DEVELOPMENT OF HOTELS
The economic boom in Jamestown is what David Hart hoped for after choosing Celeron as the newest sight for one of his Harbor Hotels. The timing of Hart’s decision to invest in lakefront property close to Jamestown matched almost perfectly with the Comedy Center’s initial development, creating a perfect storm for the two to team up in attracting visitors to the region.
“We felt there was a good opportunity for us to expand our footprint with the Harbor Hotel brand and take advantage of what we saw as a revival of generally the southern tier of New York and specifically the city of Jamestown,” he said. “The two businesses, ours and the Comedy Center, opened in the same month and it’s incredible for a smaller community such as Jamestown, some might say a bit of a forgotten community, to have close to $100 million in development come to fruition and open in the same month.”
And, while the hotel opened at the end of the 2018 season — Aug. 30 — they worked to focus their initial efforts on local food and beverage service to tremendous results.
“We didn’t really get the opportunity to expose ourselves to so much of the traffic that comes in and around the lake community. We missed all of that,” he said. “Our hotel has the ability to actually service a variety of market segments in our industry, so we focused our efforts more on food and beverage for the local residents for the folks who are there year round and we’ve had tremendous success with that, even hosting meets and functions for local organizations.”
Back in downtown Jamestown, the newly renovated DoubleTree by Hilton also opened outside of the summer season, welcoming visitors beginning on February 28 of this year, but noted that since they’ve opened, their food and beverage service has been a popular feature as well for locals.
“The out-of-towners will come and stay, but we’ve had a great response from our locals to our restaurant,” said Brandon Wade-Odell, the hotel’s manager.
The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival also provided the DoubleTree with its best week thus far, nearing full occupancy the duration of the week while selling out the evening of sold-out performances by Sebastian Maniscalco.
“We’ve worked really closely with the Comedy Center since we opened,” Wade-Odell said. “A lot of it has to do with blocking off rooms and we bring in a ton of workers to work the festival. We had some VIPs stay with us, people who were here the duration of the week. Just being involved, it’s been great trying to draw crowds to us as far as being competitive with rates to bring people downtown.”
IMPACT ON LOCAL SALES TAX REVENUE
In 2018, the city of Jamestown reached roughly $6.4 million in sales tax revenue, a 5%increase from 2017, according to city comptroller Joe Bellitto, and is projected to reach over $6.6 million in 2019.
But, in crunching the numbers, the revenue from 2018 included a third fiscal quarter — during which the National Comedy Center officially opened to the public — that reached over $1.8 million.
“That was, at that time our largest quarter ever,” Bellitto said. “It was the first time we had been over $1.8 million. I’ve been here 29 years and I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to that number at least in my time.”
The second, third and projected fourth quarters of 2019 are the highest in sales tax revenue for their respective quarters in Jamestown history, with the just-announced third quarter of 2019 reaching an all-time new high — 8.37% higher than the third quarter of 2017 (the year prior to the opening of the National Comedy Center).
And while Bellitto is unable to pinpoint what is driving up the local economy, he is confident the Comedy Center’s presence the past year has certainly added to it.
“I think there’s definitely a positive effect that the Comedy Center has had along with how everything is developing,” he said. “Everything in general that is happening downtown is helping. I hope we can continue on those percentage increases the next couple years.”
IMPACT ON THE LOCAL HOUSING MARKET
Bill Soffel, President and CEO of ERA Team VP Real Estate, has also seen a significant shift in his market in the past calendar year.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Comedy Center itself, and the additional development its presence has encouraged and created, has been a major contributor,” Soffel said. “The national economy and real estate market have certainly been strong, so that’s a factor also, but if you look at how Jamestown market activity has outpaced the county’s activity as a whole, I believe that speaks directly to the Comedy Center’s impact.”
Soffel noted, based on data provided to him by his agents, that the number of properties sold in 2019 increased 7.3% over 2018 in Chautauqua County and increased 8.2% in Jamestown. The average sale price increased 9.5% in Chautauqua County at-large, and also 9.5% in Jamestown. The average days properties were on the market dropped from 96 to 84 in Chautauqua County and from 77 to 76 days in Jamestown.
“I think there has also been a large shift in the commercial sector of the market at the local level,” he added. “In recent years we have seen businesses move out of the Jamestown downtown area to local suburban locations, to larger markets like Erie or Buffalo, or even close down, but there is definitely a new energy in downtown Jamestown, and so that trend seems to be in the middle of a reversal.”
As for the individuals purchasing these homes?
“It’s difficult to measure this, but my sense is that there has been a slight increase in folks moving in from out of town, including vacation and recreational property owners that ultimately decide to settle in our area, folks who grew up in our area and have lived in other parts of the country but now want to come back ‘home,’ and even more young adults that decide to stay here from the start or come back right after college to start their careers,” he said.
Centi, who has employed years’ worth of teenagers in her restaurants, has noticed this trend as well.
“When I look at a bunch of these younger kids who used to work for me when they were 16 and 17 and they moved away and they are coming back as chiropractors, occupational therapists,” she said. “These kids aren’t coming back and saying, ‘Eww, Jamestown.’ There’s this positive movement right now and the ball started rolling with the Comedy Center.”
Overall, local business owners are excited: they are seeing a return on their investment in the community due to the investments others have made.
And, they’re having fun along the way.
“It’s fun to have customers visiting from out of town, exploring our city with a new set of eyes and fresh perspective and appreciation for what Chautauqua County has to offer,” Kaltenmeier added.
“It’s just been great,” Lisciandro said, adding the Comedy Center’s shuttle to-and-from Chautauqua Institution during the summer has also added to his business.
“I’ve never seen residents from Chautauqua Institution down here at The Pub during the nine-week season,” he added. “People who have been going for 30 years and have never been to Jamestown. The shuttle has helped get them out. This past Saturday, I had four different tables from the Institution which is awesome.”
Lepley explained that the crowds during festival weekends have been reminded her of memories from years’ past.
“It was nice to see the amount of people downtown walking around,” she said. “That’s what it used to be like years ago and I hope the Comedy Center continues to bring headliners to the area much more often because it really has worked to draw the crowds.”
“There’s just a positive movement going on with Jamestown right now,” Centi said. “The marketing that we’re doing around the city has been such a positive. There’s so much to do now downtown whereas five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that.”
Added Kaltenmeier, “The concrete figures very much excites me for the future of downtown Jamestown and the place my business has within that attraction corridor. In order to stay in business, we need to be busy. Very busy. Every day. And the National Comedy Center has definitely helped provide that this last year for Forte.”