Brian Lothridge

To say Jeff Belt has been a big advocate for Walkable Olean is a bit of an understatement.

I recall Mr. Belt’s enthusiasm for the project when I attended a meeting nearly a year ago. The first preliminary plans for the streetscape project were unveiled and Mr. Belt made a strong pitch for the project. The president and CEO of SolEpoxy said he has invested in Olean as a business leader and taxpayer and wanted to see the city come alive again.

“We need to push on through these difficult times,” he said. “We need to restart the revenue engine of our commercial district. We need investment to enable commercial activity to thrive again. Walkable Olean is our best chance for economic development, job growth, private-sector reinvestment and, long term, lower property taxes for all.”

The project is personal for Mr. Belt. He and his family live in this city and he runs a company in this city. The success of this project affects him as a city resident, a family man and a businessman. He told a mixed crowd of skeptics and supporters at that meeting last year that, when done right, a walkable downtown is the only economic development proven to work.

Mr. Belt put time and research into this project, much of which is documented on the project website, www.walkableolean.com. He arranged for experts like Dan Burden, a nationally known community planner, to speak in Olean about how similar projects have benefited communities around the nation.

And now he is really putting his money where his mouth is.

Mr. Belt has agreed to purchase the three former Marra buildings on West State Street, right next door to the former Manufacturers Hanover building. The city’s Urban Renewal Agency accepted Mr. Belt’s $3,000 offer for the buildings Thursday morning.

While the purchase price is super cheap, Mr. Belt’s intended investment is massive. The buildings return to the tax rolls to the tune of $16,346. Mr. Belt said he plans to spend more than $400,000 to overhaul the buildings with a mixed-use plan that could potentially create more tax revenue for the city, as well as jobs from business that could set up shop there.

Imagine those eyesore buildings and that stretch of West State Street coming to life again. People buzzing in and out of a coffee shop or shopping for a new bike are just a couple of ideas that Mr. Belt has dreamed up so far. Mr. Belt said he will have a competitive process that will allow the entrepreneurs with the best plan to set up shop in the buildings. Investing in solid business plans will help guarantee the success of this revitalization project.  

Of course, Walkable Olean is a North Union Street overhaul. But the renovated Marra buildings will be an obvious extension of the streetscape project. How much more attractive will the iconic Manny Hanny be to a developer who sees new life next door? Mr. Belt’s initiative hints at the excitement and change that Olean’s downtown could see in the next several years.

Mr. Belt’s example also brings a challenge to the community. Obviously he isn’t Walkable Olean’s only supporter. Several downtown businesses display signs of support in their shops. But what’s next? Are those business owners willing and able to make their own investments and improve their storefronts? Are there budding entrepreneurs with a good business plan they could plug into a vacant North Union Street storefront?

It isn’t enough for the city to proceed with this streetscape project with the hope that if they build it business will come. There needs to be a targeted business effort involving the city, business leaders and the community to make sure this project is successful. A project that beautifies downtown but maintains the status quo will have limited success for a short time. A plan that targets and helps new business to develop as well as helps current business owners thrive is necessary for this project to maintain long-term success.

I don’t see Walkable Olean as an attempt to bring the city back to its glory days. That wouldn’t work because times have changed — what worked 50 years ago in a different time and business climate would probably not work today. Walkable Olean is about investing in the city’s future. We need to plan for an Olean of tomorrow, one that is alive and growing. We need an Olean that businesses want to come to and that younger generations want to move to.          

Maintaining the status quo is not an option. We need to take back this city and help it to grow. I am excited about the promise of this project. I commend Mr. Belt and his passion to see this city thrive. But this is just the beginning.

This project will be painful as we endure it but I think we will be a stronger, more vital city because of it.

(Brian Lothridge is an editor with the Olean Times Herald. Email him at blothridge@oleantimesherald.com.)

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