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Massena Main Street revitalization plotted

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MASSENA - When residents Phil and Jackie Sheehan opened their gift shop on Main Street in 1969, downtown Massena was still a vibrant, lively hub of economic activity.

The couple remembers downtown Massena being a popular shopping district with stores like Fichman’s, Kinney Drugs, JJ Newberry’s and Grant’s drawing large crowds on the weekends and evenings. “You’d have lots of people downtown on Friday nights, just meeting and greeting. We’d have young people walking the sidewalks, downtown merchants. Everyone knew everyone,” Ms. Sheehan said.

The Sheehans first opened Phil and Jackie’s in 1969 at 162 Main St., the current location of Studio 162 Services Salon, which Mr. Sheehan said they “expanded and expanded” until they closed up shop and went into retirement in 2003. Financial difficulties forced them to reopen the business in 2009 at 69 Main St.

Being a mom-and-pop shop in downtown Massena throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the Sheehans saw firsthand the slow deterioration of economic activity in the area, as once-vibrant stores gave way to vacant and in some cases crumbling buildings.

Ms. Sheehan believes downtown Massena began to see its decline in the early 1990s, largely due to the construction of the St. Lawrence Centre Mall, which they said had a significant impact on their business.

“The mall hurt us real bad. Our flower sales weren’t affected, but our gift business went way down from the mall,” Ms. Sheehan said. “They had a lot of stores out there where people could buy the same thing they could buy here.”

However, a number of popular downtown businesses had already closed shop by the time the St. Lawrence Centre Mall opened in 1990. According to Massena Museum records, Fishman’s department store closed in 1976, JJ Newberry’s discount “five and dime” store closed in 1977 and TJ Martin’s dry goods store closed in 1985, leaving the downtown largely vacant and undesirable for shopping.

“Six months ago, downtown Massena was beginning to look like another in a long line of retail centers made obsolete by the arrival of major shopping mall,” stated a 1992 article in the Daily Courier-Observer. “Many storefront windows were empty as longtime business owners closed shop, deciding to retire or get out before the new competition drove them out.”

Some blame Harte Haven Plaza, opened in 1958, for directing customers away from downtown Massena, a trend that was worsened by the opening of the mall.

Resident David Talarico, a former pharmacist at Kinney’s Drugs, believes downtown experienced a loss when the drug store moved from the corner of Main and Phillips streets to Harte Haven Plaza in the late 1960s. Many residents fondly remember the days when they could grab a snack at the lunch counter in Kinney’s, buy whatever they needed at a nearby shop and ride the bus home if they didn’t want to deal with trying to find a parking space, which used to be in very short supply.

“The main cause of deterioration is Harte Haven Plaza. A lot of people started going to the plaza, and when they opened the mall that was another loss for downtown,” Mr. Talarico said. “Those two really hurt downtown.”

Longtime Massena resident H. Olin Peets, founder and former owner of Peets Jewelers, remembers a downtown Massena in which every building was occupied and business was vibrant. “It was busy; it was enjoyable. It reminded me of New York City,” Mr. Peets said. “People enjoyed going downtown.”

Mr. Peets said the Massena of the 1960s and ’70s sported more glass storefronts, unobstructed windows, outdoor decorations and brick facades - many of which are goals of the effort to revitalize downtown Massena with the help of $250,000 in state grant funds, to be distributed amongst downtown business-owners seeking to make renovations to their buildings, according to the renovation guidelines.

Mr. Peets, Mr. and Ms. Sheehan and many other residents hope the effort will restore downtown Massena to some of its past glory. Many have expressed a desire to see a more cohesive, matching business district like those in neighboring communities, such as Potsdam and Malone.

Michael Almasian, executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena, believes the presence of derelict, unkept and poorly renovated buildings have significantly hurt the overall appearance of downtown Massena. “There’s too many teeth missing in our smile,” he said.

In order to correct what some have called a “smorgasbord” of building facades in downtown Massena, the BDC’s consultant, Rick Hauser, of In. Site Architecture, held information sessions March 11 and 12 to explain the types of renovation work that would be eligible for reimbursement with $250,000 in state grant funding. Last year the BDC was awarded a grant through the New York State Main Street Grant program to rehabilitate buildings in Massena’s downtown corridor.

“We’re talking about restoring the core integrity of what downtown Massena was and what it could be,” Mr. Hauser said. “Underneath (many of those existing) buildings, you’ve got a scheme for what people want to see.”

“It’s important to get some kind of cohesion between the buildings so that when developers come into the community, they’ll know” how the exterior of their building should look from the street, Mr. Hauser added.

Mr. Hauser and fellow consultant Nicole Martin distributed 30-page information packets that lay out the kind of building features they would and would not like to see in the future downtown Massena.

Those guidelines appear to lay out steps toward creating a more open, inviting downtown that focuses heavily on real brick facades, open glass store-fronts and subtle use of signage and advertising. The guidelines call for open glass store-fronts, and asks that windows not be covered by large amounts of posters or feature neon signs. Those who wish to utilize grant funds are also being asked to restore original building features wherever possible, and to not hinder the view of original windows, doors or building fronts with signs or boards.

The guidelines also call for the use of more outdoor features, such as awnings, sandwich signs, flower pots and outdoor furniture, in order to make Massena’s downtown more inviting to potential tourists. The guidelines recommend the use of murals and historic plaques to make buildings more attractive to the public.

“What the New York State Main Street Grant program wants is for you to have a nice, valuable downtown that you’ll want to walk through,” Mr. Hauser said.

In addition, the renovation guidelines dictate measurements to keep buildings in scale with one another, and certain color combinations, which focus heavily on soft colors, reds, grays and both dark and light shades of blue.

Town historian Mary Ellen Casselman applauded the BDC for working toward restoring downtown Massena to what it used to be. “I think the BDC has been instrumental in executing changes to Massena’s downtown,” Ms. Casselman said. “I’m very excited about what their doing.”

Mr. and Ms. Sheehan feel the key to restoring downtown to its former success is to make it a place where people go to shop rather than a place where people go with a single destination in mind. Ms. Sheehan suggested renovating upper-level building space into high-quality apartments, which she says there’s a lack of in Massena, as a way to attract more young people with discretionary income to Massena’s downtown.

“Young people like to live someplace vibrant where there’s a lot going on,” Ms. Sheehan said.

However, Mr. and Ms. Sheehan also pointed out that a lot has changed since downtown Massena’s hey-day in the 1960s and ’70s, such as loss of population, jobs and fewer young people who may be more apt to spend time and income on shopping than a retired person. These factors may make it difficult to return downtown to the vibrant shopping community that it once was.

“We have faith in Massena but it’s going to take a whole effort, because too many stores aren’t occupied,” Ms. Sheehan said. “You can build a better downtown but what if you don’t have a population to support it?”


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