Entrepreneurs provide sparks of hope for small towns
On a weekday morning, Burlingham Books is abuzz with activity. Residents are using the espresso café in the bookstore in Perry, Wyoming County, as a backdrop for meetings and chat.

The brightly lit store stands out among the squat, nondescript buildings from another era that dot Main Street. And Burlingham is open until 10 p.m. on some nights, an anomaly in the village of 4,000 residents.

Owner Ann Burlingham, 42, a sixth-generation Perry native who was raised on a nearby farm, opened the shop almost a year ago to fulfill a personal dream and passion for saving downtown. She considered nearby villages but stuck with Perry.

"This is what I am committed to. My family's connection is here and my history is here," she said. Downtowns are "really important for a community."

Perry's Main Street, like many village downtowns in western New York, has been struggling. The population isn't growing much. The region's economy is flat at best. In Perry, the Champion Products plant and Archway-Parmalat factory closed. When people shop, they can find big-box national retailers if they're willing to drive for half an hour or more.

As a result, downtown vacancy rates average 20 percent in the adjacent rural counties of Wyoming and Livingston.

To be sure, there are exceptions. In Livingston, Geneseo's Main Street thrives, in part because the 5,200-student campus of the State University College at Geneseo is within easy walking distance.

Now, government leaders and business people such as Burlingham are trying to inject life into other downtowns.

Returning to Perry in 2001 after a decade of living in Ohio, Burlingham was saddened by what she saw. The bustling downtown she remembered as a girl was marked by vacant storefronts and often by empty sidewalks. "I was a little surprised at how many things had closed down," she said.

She invested about $250,000 to get the bookstore going, much of it for renovation of the 2,460 square feet of space and for inventory.

Residents say her investment, offset somewhat by government incentives because she created jobs, has brought promise to Perry.

"I've had a lot of good response," Burlingham said. "People look at an empty storefront and think that's it. But it's not a problem, it's a potential."

Plenty to offer

The good news in Perry is that Burlingham isn't the only one who's determined to resurrect downtown. The village, about an hour's drive from Rochester, is home to a small but passionate group of business owners, many of them Perry natives in their 30s and 40s — "boomerangs" who left and came back to their roots.

They want to find ways to get people to stop and shop. They want to play up the quaintness, even charm, that small towns can offer. They say Perry has distinctive aspects to it, including an arts community, affordable rents, small-town friendliness and proximity to places such as Silver Lake.

"It's not just about Main Street, it's about the town," said Tamara Quilty, a village trustee and Perry native who returned from Dallas, Texas, with her family.

There are some positive signs. Last month, the Alliance for Business Growth, a nonprofit dedicated to helping small-business owners in Wyoming and Livingston counties, sponsored a "Destination Downtown" conference in Mount Morris to offer tips and inspiration.

About 120 people attended, many of them downtown business owners eager for advice. Alliance director Louise Wadsworth was pleased by the turnout. Her organization, based in Geneseo and funded by a grant from the Governor's Office for Small Cities, is working directly with about 30 businesses in the two counties.

The alliance offers business classes for entrepreneurs, helps with grant applications and sponsors efforts such as the downtown conference. Wadsworth said it doesn't necessarily require a lot of money to start a Main Street business because rents in these rural towns average only $5 per square foot and entire buildings can be purchased for $20,000 to $100,000.

Burlingham was one of those who attended the conference and left with new energy after hearing nationally known speaker Rick Segel's mantra for places like Perry: "You build Main Street one business at a time."

Success story

Another downtown pioneer is Rick Hauser, a Cornell-educated architect who fell in love with Perry after he and his wife, Meghan, a Perry native, moved back to raise their family.

In 2005, Hauser bought the historic two-story building that Burlingham Books anchors as part of his efforts to revitalize downtown. He said Perry's dilemma isn't due to lack of interest but lack of rentable space.

The building was 95 percent vacant in 2005 and now is 100 percent occupied with six businesses and 18 people.

Most recently, Hauser came up with the idea to start Perry New York LLC, a company in which business owners pool money to buy downtown buildings.

"It's my town. I'd like to create the kind of community I'd like to live in," said Hauser. "You have to be willing to invest in the future. No one is going to get rich in this tomorrow." So far, about 35 people have shown interest, he said, with the minimum investment being $2,500.

Residents say they're also upbeat because the farmers market has been popular in the summer, and a group is dressing up downtown for the holidays, with a Christmas tree and events such as an inaugural home tour.

"We talked about Merry Perry Holidays, Merry Perry July Fourth ... Merry Perry, it's just that whole state of the mind," said Jessie Barth, a recent transplant from Pennsylvania.

About seven miles from Perry and not far from Exit 7 of Interstate 390, another downtown also is eying a rebirth.

Business in Mount Morris, with a population of roughly 3,600, took a hit after a major, long-running road construction project began tearing up Main Street about two years ago.

At least two downtown stores out of about 25 said they were forced to close. Another, Wallpaper Etc., saw business fall by as much as 70 percent.

But with construction recently completed, signs of optimism have emerged. Dominic's restaurant reopened at the start of November. And the nonprofit Mount Morris Theater Group wants to turn an old movie theater into a performing arts and film center.

As part of the efforts of the Alliance for Business Growth, students from SUNY Geneseo are working with businesses on marketing and grant applications. Already, there are signs of growth. A new Mexican restaurant will open by the end of the year, and the buzz is that a couple from out of town have bought a building and plan to open a coffee shop.

The Chamber of Commerce and elected officials are brainstorming ways to further brand Mount Morris as the gateway to the "Grand Canyon of the East," a reference to nearby Letchworth State Park and its breathtaking views of the Genesee River gorge.

"We don't have as many vacant stores as we had a year ago. We had a number of stores upgrade their façades now that the dust has settled" from the road construction, said Mayor Harold Long.

Mount Morris isn't the only community that has benefited from working with Geneseo students. In Rochester, businesses in the South Wedge began working with SUNY Geneseo's Small Business Development Center in 1999, with professors and students helping to research new business possibilities and write business plans.

The commercial vacancy rate in the South Wedge has fallen from 27 percent to 10 percent. And between 85 percent and 95 percent of new South Wedge businesses are still open after two years, beating the usual survival rate.

Fairport a model

Struggling downtowns look to success stories, and Fairport is one of them. The village is known for maximizing its location on the Erie Canal with events such as the annual Canal Days festival.

Scott Winner, director of the Fairport Village Partnership, said that partnerships between the public and private sectors have helped make downtown a destination.

For example, sitting on the partnership's board is Mike Kauffman, the manager of nearby Eastview Mall in Victor, who gave Fairport a kiosk and offers marketing advice. The village is a member of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association and exhibits at international tourism shows.

Canal towns such as Fairport, Pittsford and Brockport have an advantage in drawing visitors.

"Not everyone has the same elements available to them, but if they don't have a canal, they have something else," Winner said.

Rebuilding a downtown can start with the launch of a new restaurant or store that creates a buzz and attracts people.

"A sense of vitality and excitement about an area can create new businesses, and that itself generates curiosity that will result in different kinds of tourism activity," said Ed Hall, president of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association.

Wadsworth, director of the Alliance for Business Growth, has a success story of her own to share with entrepreneurs in the Livingston and Wyoming villages she works with. In 1980, when she launched her boutique, Pictures & Presents, downtown Geneseo was rundown, she said.

In 1987, she bought the Main Street building where the boutique is now located. And in the 1990s, Geneseo took off after store owners gave facelifts to their storefronts.

"Sometimes I think it takes one person doing something special with their store," said Wadsworth, pointing to Burlingham Books in Perry as a sign of hope.

Wadsworth also counsels persistence and patience to passionate entrepreneurs. "It's one step at a time, no matter what you do."

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