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06 Feb 2017

North Country Downtown Development Builds New Opportunity

North Country Downtown Development Builds New Opportunity | February 3, 2017 | BY: Joleene Moody

Various communities throughout the north country can easily be pegged as some of the most historic and aesthetic towns and villages in the entire country. From original stone-covered houses and roads to notable churches and schools, one can’t travel more than ten miles down a country road without happening upon some kind of historic structure. 

Beyond these structures, nestled comfortably in the heart of various towns and villages, are historic districts dotted with buildings that are filled with story and mystery, just waiting to come back to life. Some buildings sit vacant, creaking in the cold as parts of their once revered facades or roofs continue to crumble. Others have been luckier, having been nurtured and reborn, thanks to their present owners.

As 2017 opens its eyes to the months that lie ahead, the north country is seeing an explosion of downtown historic revitalization, none of which would be possible if it weren’t for passionate leaders and community members. If you’ve ever traveled to Clayton in Jefferson County, you’ve seen some of it. Or if you’ve driven through Public Square in Watertown, you’ve also passed pieces of renewed history. Where it happens is irrelevant. That it happens is really what matters.

The Village of Clayton

 The village of Clayton is bustling with tourists, mostly in the summer months. From the Antique Boat Museum to the newly erected 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, Clayton offers a place of exploration and comfort for visitors as they venture further into the Thousand Islands.

The tourist town has been undergoing a historic facelift for some time. It started in 1985 after the historic district was determined. The lines were drawn and 29 buildings within the district were added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997, six more buildings were included.

In 2005, the real magic started, after the first phase of what is known as the Riverwalk Project began. A brownfield site at the former Frink America Inc. location was sold and eventually developed to welcome the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel. A crumbling breakwall was also part of the plan, and was removed to welcome the first phases of a waterfront walk. 

Phase two of the project saw the walk develop from Frink Park to the Veterans Monument. Businesses saw to it that the walk was accessible from both the front and the back of their establishments. Some businesses have utilized private funding to better their buildings, but others wait patiently for the New York Main Street Program to be approved so building facades and other improvements can be made.

Phase three is still in the works. As the Riverwalk Project continues to move forward smoothly (with an anticipated start date sometime this April), any facade work has been put on hold until it is determined who will be responsible for the Historic District Infrastructure Improvements Project, a project that would see the power lines in the historic district buried. As it stands now, no facade can be updated because the power lines are too close to the structures.

“Building owners cannot work on the facades of the building without being in danger because the wires are within 10 feet of the building,” said Clayton Mayor Norma Zimmer. “It’s a safety issue. And until that’s resolved, we wait.”

Renovation and preservation doesn’t end there. Come 2018, New York State will begin digging up the roads in Clayton as they embark upon a much-needed reconditioning of the roads, sidewalks and curbs. It is during this upheaval that Mayor Zimmer would like to see the power line project happen.

“We may never get another chance to do this, so the timing is ideal,” she said. “The power line project is a little controversial, but I am confident that we can get it under way. We’ve got a $1.5 million dollar grant right now to use towards it. We’ve got two smaller grants that will take care of the sewer lateral in that area, too. We’re also doing a distribution project on our water plant, so we incorporated the waterline in the district with that grant. All of this is going to change things significantly for the town of Clayton.”

By 2018, if all goes well, the bustling tourist town of Clayton will further restore the town to its original roots, shining a light on at least 15 historic buildings waiting for a facelift. New roads will welcome visitors. The Riverwalk will encourage economic growth. Unsightly power lines will be buried. And when it’s all said and done, Mayor Zimmer looks forward to taking in the complete rebirth of history in her little riverside community.

 “I just close my eyes and imagine it,” she said. “I don’t see all the wires. I see the beauty and transformation of all of downtown. This is all we’ve got. The historic district is the heartbeat of Clayton. Without it, we’re just like everybody else.”

The City of Watertown

As Clayton’s historic district flourishes on the edge of Jefferson County, the city of Watertown continues to guard its own historic integrity with the preservation of one of the most prolific buildings in the city, the Empsall’s Department Store building.

Built in 1904, the building was first known as the Santee and Roth building and was described in archived newspaper articles as “almost a village.” One could eat, sleep, and shop within the eight-story structure without ever leaving. It became Empsall’s Department Store in 1907 after Frank A. Empsall, a seasoned merchandiser hailing from Massachusetts, bought and expanded the property. At its peak, the store boasted 50 different departments, including draperies, flooring, photography, even a tearoom that served homemade pies and other sweet treats to patrons. Over the next 11 decades, the building exchanged various owners until it was closed for good in 1993.

Gary Beasley, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown Inc., never took his eyes off the building.  As the front man of dozens of historic renovation projects throughout the tri-county area, Mr. Beasely is committed to preserving the historic character of some of the most notable structures throughout downtown Watertown.

“These structures are irreplaceable,” he said. “You can go into any mall in any given city and you won’t know what city you’re in. They’re all alike. But downtowns are unique. Every downtown, every building, every construction is distinct to a certain community and are part of the historic fabric. You can go back through archives of old pictures and see what has always been part of the community.”

This is true of Empsall’s. As part of what is dubbed the Empsall/Brighton Project, Neighbors of Watertown and their contractors will turn the former department store into 17,000 square feet of rentable space between the commercial space on the lower level, and eight newly renovated apartments on the upper level. The original tin ceiling has been preserved and will be replaced once the walls are completed. Empsall’s original revolving door is also being restored. And upgrades to windows, doors, bathrooms and roofs are all part of the plan.

The revitalization doesn’t end there. The entire Brighton/Empsall Plaza Project includes renovations of the Henry Keep Apartments on State Street, the Olympic Apartments on Franklin Street, the Centennial Apartments on Washington St., and the Bugbee Apartments above the YWCA/Franklin Building. In total, roughly 260 units will be improved. The project also includes exterior refinements on the commercial buildings that face the J.B. Wise parking lot.

“We started work on the Empsall building recently,” Mr. Beasley said.    “We assembled all of our financing and began shortly after that. Most of the work will take place over the next nine or ten months, and will be done by the end of 2017. One thing to consider in all of this is that we’re always talking about recycling and renewing energy. Every time you build a new building, you have to tear down the old one and it’s got to be dumped somewhere. To save these buildings and give them new life is the epitome of recycling.”

The total cost of the project between various grants and other investments is upwards of $19 million. Once the Brighton/Empsall Plaza Project is complete, Mr. Beasley has his eye on a few other historic buildings downtown, including the Crystal Restaurant and the old Henry’s Jewelers building.

“We hope to assist the owners with any possible upgrades with these iconic buildings, should they choose to participate.” Mr. Beasley said. “We’ve invested several million dollars into the downtown district over the years for historic renovation since 1992, and we have no intention of stopping anytime soon. ”

The Village of Canton

St. Lawrence County is the largest county in New York State by area, and home to a plethora of quaint towns and villages speckled with brilliant pieces of historic beauty. The village of Canton is one of those quaint places. Once the center of manufacture and mercantile business, the village was officially incorporated in 1845. As the village grew and the population increased, many of the original structures remained. But not all of them. Some met their demise through demolition or fire, as was often the case in the early days before fireproof materials and other safety measures guarded the original structures.

 In 1975, the village noted the nostalgic significance of the area by officially outlining The Village Park Historic District and listing it with the National Register of Historic Places. Those lines were extended in 1983 and again in 2007 to include other areas of significance.

The focal point of the historic district is Canton Park, which plays host to community activities throughout the year. Surrounding the park is a library, three beautifully constructed churches, a post office and bank, and commercial row, a line of remarkable business and residential structures. It is here where seven historic buildings await renewal in 2017, thanks to the New York Main Street Program recently awarded to the village.

“We have several projects that are going to be adding apartments on the second stories,” Leigh Rodriguez, director of economic development for the village, said. “Many of these buildings have been vacant for years. There will be energy efficient upgrades that include the improvement and repair of windows, too. The focus is to create residential space for people with low to moderate income, all of which are within walking distance to amenities.”

Both inside and out, the seven buildings in the historic district will see improvement, from new facades and the mending of sagging roofs, to the repair of cornices and other architectural details.

The New York Main Street Program is a grant that most downtowns secure to offset the cost of such improvements. The city of Watertown is no stranger to the program, nor is the village of Clayton. Both have applied for and received these monies as part of their own upgrade.

Without these monies, building owners in the village of Canton would be looking at millions of dollars in improvements, a price tag that often keeps any upgrades and repairs at bay.

“The grant focuses very strongly on historic preservation and rehabilitation of historic structures,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “We received the grant once before in 2006 and there were four buildings that were renovated at that time. To streamline the upgrades, the village changed the code to include information that covered restrictions on the size of signs, key building colors, and any changes to the facade. Everything has to get approval through the planning board.”

The work on the structures will start this year. Once they’re done, the revitalization will still continue. Ms. Rodriquez is pursuing an option called Main Street America, a program offered through the National Trust for Historic Preservation that represents a continued commitment to improve and further incorporate historic preservation.

“These historic buildings make each community unique,” Ms. Rodriquez said. “Highlighting that uniqueness is what makes downtowns attractive because each building has character and represents a particular part of history. Keeping it alive is crucial, and our community has demonstrated they want to be a part of preserving it.”   

Winston Churchill said, “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” These three communities are a lamp, and more than happy to be. While the past can’t be relived, flickers of it can be remembered, and it all starts in the downtowns that are ready and willing to keep the echoes alive.

Originally Published in NNY Business Magazine. Read Online at