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20 Feb 2017

Watertown planners focusing on downtown

WATERTOWN — The restored Woolworth and Franklin buildings and work progressing on the Lincoln Building and at the Brighton/Empsall apartments are some of the success stories that have occurred downtown in recent  years.

But the city’s Planning Department is putting together a $100,000 downtown revitalization study that could help the city’s business district continue that momentum for  years to come.

In December, the city was awarded a $50,000 state grant that will help finance the downtown master plan. That will guide redevelopment to capitalize on community assets and attract new investment and businesses. The city will kick in another $50,000 in cash and in-kind services to pay for the remainder of the grant.

Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community development director, said the blueprint for downtown will lay out a plan of what should happen over the next 10 to 15 years.

“It will be vision for downtown to see what people want,” he said.

City planners are in the early stages of putting together the study, with the hopes of being ready next month to start finding a consultant to oversee the project. It will then take between 10 and 12 months to complete.

The study will focus on downtown’s existing conditions, zoning, parking, possibly a building inventory, vacancy rates and the types of space available for redevelopment.

The city will seek out business and property owners and community leaders to get their input to see what they think about downtown’s future.

And the downtown plan could become key in obtaining other state funding in the future, Mr. Lumbis said.

Last year, city officials learned the importance of such a study when they were applying for the $10 million Downtown Initiative competitive funding program through the Empire State Development.

Although the city missed out on the $10 million “Hunger Games” competition grant, it could end up becoming a big boost if the state offers a second round of economic assistance competition and Watertown already has its application finished, Mr. Lumbis said.

In the past year or so, several new businesses opened downtown. An eye care center operates out of a storefront in the Woolworth Building. A yoga studio/juice bar, the Marcy Spa, a brew pub and another business will fill the storefronts in the Lincoln Building. The owners of the Crystal restaurant plan to open a tapas eatery on Public Square, joining other food-related businesses such as Mr. Bigg’s, an international grocery store and an internet cafe.

After some financial woes, the North Country Arts Council will keep its art gallery’s doors open in the Franklin Building, on the other side of Public Square.

Despite that good news, Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp., believes more can be done to lure businesses downtown. The Retail Coach, a Tupelo, Miss., consultant, can do just that, he said.

For years, the local development corporation, also known as the Watertown Trust, has helped all kind of small “mom and pop” style businesses and restaurants open downtown. But many of them have come and gone, he said.

That’s why downtown needs a more cohesive plan to recruit businesses and fill up vacant storefronts and other space, Mr. Rutherford said. The Retail Coach has the experience to do that because the consultant has access to national retailers, restaurants and independent business that would be the right fit for downtown, he said.

“We want our retail center to become a destination point and build on it,” Mr. Rutherford said.

Plans call for The Retail Coach to analyze Watertown’s downtown market, talk with 20 local business owners, complete a demographic profile and consumer survey to recruit retailers.

Gary C. Beasley, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown Inc., said the retail recruiter is needed to help developers fill their buildings.

Neighbors is in the midst of a $14 million construction project to renovate the Brighton Apartments and four low-income senior citizen housing buildings in the city.

Mr. Beasley said he’s encouraged by the Watertown Trust’s interest in bringing someone with an expertise in recruiting retail businesses. The recruiter will know how to use the vacant space and match retailers with what’s available, he said.

“We’re developers,” he said. “We know how to fix old buildings. They know economic development.”

Construction crews are working on the Empsall Plaza portion of Brighton Apartments project to create eight units in the Court Street building, redevelop ground floor commercial space and replacing an old elevator.

A recruiter could help fill the commercial space in the Empsall Plaza, he said. So far, Neighbors has not found a tenant for the commercial space that once housed a department store and most recently Velocity, a fun center that abruptly closed in 2013 and also featured playground equipment.

Work also started at the Centennial Apartments, 1010 Washington St., and the Bugbee building above the downtown Family Y facility, They will be joined later by Henry Keep at 206 State St. and Olympic apartments on Franklin Street.

The renovations, which include 260 units, are slated to be finished by the end of the year.

Read Story in Watertown Daily Times 2017 Progress Report