OLEAN — Not all that long ago, civic and business leaders in the city looked up North Union Street and saw a beleaguered downtown decades past its prime.
Beginning the road to revitalization was long, intrusive and restrictive to many businesses on the main thoroughfare.
But the $8.85 million streetscape overhaul is over — with the exception of a handful of minor tasks. Officials already appreciate early growth taking place and anticipate future fruits. An identity is emerging, said Larry Sorokes, CEO of the Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce and president of Olean Business Development.
“We are having conversations with people from all strata about what exactly the downtown brand is,” Sorokes said. “How do we define ourselves, and what do we want to be known for?
Other communities have done this very well, and we have maybe struggled with this a little bit over the years. … To understand a little bit more about what the downtown brand is, I think, is going to be really helpful as we start making decisions in future years.”
On Tuesday, the new Union Tea Café and Tea Shop announced it will host a public opening at 7:30 a.m. Jan. 2. It will operate out of the first-floor headquarters of Olean Business Development, 301 N. Union St., as a tenant of its new-business incubator.
“The tea industry is something that’s booming right now,” said owner and founder Amy Sherburne. “When I’ve traveled, I’ve been to a lot of cafés where all they focus on is tea. There really isn’t anything like that in the Olean area, and we’re happy to give people an option for something different.”
Down the street at 158 N. Union, My Old Time Bakery and Café opened Aug. 30 under owner and professional baker Ronny Warner. There’s also Windworks Band Instrument Repair, which opened at 138 N. Union in the spring.
Ravyn & Robyn Restaurant, at 239 N. Union, recently hired chef Massimo Oradei from Milan, Italy.
Efforts continue for John Petruzzi’s redevelopment of 319 and 321 N. Union St., a former speakeasy and later JoJo’s Bar, into the new Little Chicago Distilleries and Prohibition museum.
Also among this year’s many developments, Brothers Bistro is open again after its 188 N. Union location closed for several months due to flooding and structural damage. And the Fraternal Order of the Eagles Club is now at the former Village Green Lounge, 311 N. Union.
"IN THE MIDST of the North Union Street project, we did see several new businesses open up in the downtown shopping district,” said Christopher Michel, director of marketing and communications at the chamber and Olean Business Development. “We’ve also seen a few renovation projects start, such as the one currently underway at the former JoJo’s bar. While the city is now just starting its post-project life, those new businesses and redevelopment projects give hope for the shape of things to come.”
City officials have applauded new businesses sprouting along North Union and existing ones that were resilient for more than two construction seasons. Some others were not so fortunate.
As crews with general contractor CatCo pressed on, the northern half of North Union shut down entirely in 2015. Construction this year allowed traffic to flow in both directions most of the time alongside excavated areas in the southern half.
“You’ve got some of those businesses on the south part of the street here that made accommodations for back-door entrances into their stores,” said Olean Mayor Bill Aiello. “Those are going to prove to be a nice thing. The Paper Factory did some remodeling on the front of theirs. A few others are getting some of those Main Street grants that are going to spruce up their businesses.”
The project required “a leap of faith” by the city and its businesses, Aiello said.
“I think if we keep this continuing enthusiasm going — getting a few more businesses on the street and getting the upper-floor apartments — we’ll be back,” the mayor added. “I don’t think we’ll ever be back to what it used to be way back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but it’ll be something new and good.”
Aiello thanked the state Regional Economic Development Councils for grant funding the future construction of a permanent farmers’ market on North Union Street, more work along Main Street and a boat launch on the Allegheny River.
IN LOOKING AHEAD, momentum and upkeep in the city’s downtown will be paramount, said Olean Common Council President Paul Gonzalez, D-Ward 3.
“The Green Acres building (was) under construction. I think that can be tied in large part to the investments we’ve made on the street itself,” he said. “When you show that kind of initiative to go out and try to make an improvement from an infrastructure standpoint and make it a destination where people want to be, this is what you want. You want people putting money into their properties and sticking their neck out to create small business. That’s what you’re seeing.”
Armond’s Fashions for Men at 111 N. Union, however, did not feel the squeeze from the streetscape project. A rear entrance helped, as was the case for numerous others in the business district, said longtime owner Craig DiCola.
DiCola said he’s “drop-dead positive” of the positives stemming from the project.
“I know that’s going to help in the long run for all kinds of things for Olean,” he said. “I’ve been for it since day one. … If somebody walks up to them and says, ‘Look, we’ve got 8,000 cars going by a day on this beautiful street. You think you want to put something here?’ Sure, boom, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.”
Aesthetic fixes brought center medians and five roundabouts to North Union, but the bulk of the reconstruction project comprised subsurface infrastructure replacement.
(Contact City Editor Kelsey Boudin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)