Written April 9, 2011     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry

Mt. Morris  

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When I got out of the Army in 1988, and my family moved to Mount Morris, the downtown business district – a two-block stretch of Main Street – was worn but alive.

There was a drug store and a drycleaners and a couple of hardware stores, two diners and a soda bar, a bakery, a bar, an electronics store, an Italian restaurant, a grocery store and a couple of places to get pizza.

Over the years, the bar and a pizza place have endured.

Most of the rest of it fell into financial abandon and structural disrepair. The buildings were unkempt, the businesses were gone, the upstairs apartments were welfare dumps.

The Wal-Mart is 10 minutes away, the mall is 30 minutes away, and financial prosperity is 30 years ago.

As eventually there wasn’t even anyplace left to buy a newspaper or your Saturday breakfast, the district was taken over by the Section 8 people, whose front porch it became. We had one of the busiest intersections in the county, and one of the deadest Main Streets.

Any number of people lamented this fact, and put forward any number of plans, but year after year it only got worse.

Until recently.

Not long ago, a rich man out of New York City came to town and he brought his checkbook. Greg O’Connell had gone to college nearby and he had it in his head that he wanted to give a small town a makeover, and we got the nod.

It’s been an interesting thing to watch.

He methodically bought up much of the downtown property. He moved out the apartment tenants and fixed up the buildings. If he never does another thing, that’s enough to make him a saint in our town.

Honestly, moving the tenants has been a tremendous lift for today, and the building repairs are the same for tomorrow. By fixing these buildings, and making them both lovely and structurally sound, he has given them – and downtown – another hundred years of life.

Long after we are all gone, the downtown buildings will still be standing and serving – because of the money and time this man has just put into them. That is a tremendous legacy.

In honor of the man who made that possible, I have proposed that Canal Alley, which runs in front of the new Rainy Days Cafe and connects with Main Street, be renamed O’Connell Avenue.

With the buildings renovated, several small businesses have come in, or are in the process of opening. Several efforts to focus and rejuvenate Main Street are underway, led primarily by this man and folks from the neighboring village of Geneseo.

Personally, as a member of the village board, I have kept my distance from the projects. It’s not because I’m not enthusiastic about them, but because – even at the small-town level – it’s important to remember the role of government.

And business development is not the proper role of government. The role of government is to protect liberty, provide affordable municipal services and stay the heck out of the way.

Before I was elected to the board, the village got involved in acquiring grant money to pay for businesses. If I had been on the board at the time, I would have voted against the grant money. But since the money is already gotten, and approved for this process, I have voted to dole it out according to the recommendation of our grant consultant. As part of this process, the village board has authorized giving various amounts of grant money – from state and federal taxpayers – to most of the new downtown businesses.

Some of them have received substantial amounts of money.

Almost all of them are also subsidized by the gentleman who is redeveloping Main Street. In a tremendously generous act of faith, he is charging rents that are probably far below market value, and certainly far below what would be warranted by the amount of money he has invested.

In large part, as a consequence, he is carrying these businesses.

In an effort to make the redevelopment a success, he is absorbing costs it doesn’t seem likely he will ever be able to recover.

You don’t find many patrons like that.

Only time will tell if this mix of these businesses will catch on. The market doesn’t always embrace the dreams of individual entrepreneurs or the grand plans of community developers. The true test will come after the grants are gone and the books have to balance.

Some sort of commercial center of gravity will have to form in Mount Morris if Main Street is to take off. Can it, like Naples, become a recreation and antique destination? Will it be able to attract the attention and the dollars of people near and far?

Time will tell.

The century-long success of Mount Morris Furniture shows that a business far from its market can draw customers with the right quality and price. The success of the Letchworth Barn shows that a quality antique business can likewise prosper with out-of-town customers. The strength of the Genesee River Hotel and its party and motel facilities – the construction of which was a pretty bold move – also proves what a smart business can do in the village. And the profitability of the Mexican restaurant south of the village shows that you can make a buck when you offer what people want and do it well.

These are all examples of success in Mount Morris here and now.

And if they can do it, others can, too.

Hopefully that includes the new businesses clustered downtown.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2011

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