OLEAN — After more than a year of planning and public outreach, efforts to renovate and restore downtown Olean are finally underway.

Gathering near North Union Street’s intersection with State Street, city officials held a ceremonial ground-breaking Tuesday for the $8.85 million North Union Street streetscape project. The event was attended by representatives of many businesses and organizations throughout Olean, particularly those who call the downtown shopping district home. Actual work will begin in the coming weeks.

“Like any community, Olean’s history is vast and varied, filled with characters and trailblazers; people who invented and innovated; individuals who saw opportunities and took them. And that is why we are here,” said Mayor Bill Aiello to a crowd of around 50 people. “The North Union Street Walkable Olean Restoration Project is a great opportunity for our city. It’s an opportunity for us to rebuild our deteriorating infrastructure — our waterlines, our sewer lines, our streetlights. It’s an opportunity for us to rebuild our railroad crossing. The project is an opportunity for us to improve the traffic flow and bring a new ambiance to our business district.”

“We are not only investing in our infrastructure, we are investing in our future ... North Union Street is a vital corridor for the city of Olean. It’s our downtown center, a place to be proud of and a place that makes Olean unique,” echoed Common Council President Ann McLaughlin. “I not only believe, I know the North Union revitalization project will bring a new beginning to the city of Olean, its businesses and residents.”

Major elements of downtown Olean’s overhaul include repairing or replacing all underground utility lines along the road, putting down a new driving surface, reducing the number of traffic lanes from four to two and installing a center median, and expanding sidewalks among other things.

Without any major delays, the project is expected to be completed in 2016.

The streetscape project is being funded mostly by a $6.5 million Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery Grant (T.I.G.E.R.) from the federal Department of Transportation. The city received the grant in September 2013, and was one of 52 entities across the country to receive such funding. The balance of North Union’s overhaul will be paid for using a mixture of public, private and grant funding.

“The governor’s office’s top priority is to spur economic growth and to ensure that economic development dollars are being spent wisely on programs that work for taxpayers — case-in-point, this project,” said Lori Cornell, a representative of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. She noted the city received a $1 million grant for the project from the state in 2011. “This groundbreaking is truly a success story. The North Union redevelopment project  aligns local and regional smart growth principles intended to combat sprawl, increase investment in downtowns, reduce vacancies and blight, and encourage mixed-use employment opportunities.”

Speaking for the business community, Larry Sorokes, president and CEO of the Greater Olean Area  Chamber of Commerce, offered words of hope for downtown Olean’s overhaul.

“... This investment goes far beyond asphalt, roundabouts, and bike lanes. We are creating a climate of optimism, collaboration, and prosperity that we deserve and have earned,” Mr. Sorokes said. “In many ways, North Union Street is a barometer of the community’s overall economic health and business vitality ... As we look down North Union, we envision a better tomorrow just as the entrepreneurs of past decades did when they took the risk of starting business here.”

The first phase of the downtown revitalization project is a $130,000 upgrade to North Union’s only railroad crossing near Whitney Avenue.

Crews from Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad and Alden-based Catco Construction will work together to install six new cantilevered crossing gates and a new driving surface at the crossing. In addition, they’ll put in a center median between the entrance to Olean Center Mall and West Sullivan Street.

Jeff Lebsack, a Hatch-Mott-MacDonald senior transportation engineer who helped design the streetscape project, said work to the crossing is expected to start “right around the first week of October.”

The first phase of work should take six weeks to complete.

After this year’s construction season, crews will leave the job site until next spring when they’ll start work on the rest of the street. The bulk of the project will be worked on during the summers of 2015 and 2016.

(Contact reporter Christopher Michel at cmichel@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHChris)