Press-Republican

October 7, 2012

An exciting downtown

Colin Read, Everybody's Business
Press-Republican

---- — I must admit. I take great pride in downtown Plattsburgh. I’m sure I am one of a great many who do.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a vested interest in seeing downtown succeed. As the owner, with my wife, of a wine-tasting room on City Hall Place, I love to see pedestrians enjoying our historic city core. In fact, it was my interest in the downtown and my desire to see if we can help create a viable grape-growing and wine-making region that induced me to want to start a vineyard, winery and tasting room.

If a small-business person wants to create a sustainable business, there are probably better towns to open up shop. Vermont is a marketing powerhouse, and people in Vermont love all things Vermont. They have invested in their Church Street pedestrian mall, which now generates about $150 million in commerce each year.

What we can grow here, they can grow there. And, Vermont has a very appreciative and larger population base to support new industry. In fact, a vineyard just across the lake just opened a wine-tasting room on Church Street. I expect it will do very well in a state that is far more business-friendly than ours and without the same restrictions imposed on our wine industry here.

But, starting a business over there, while not as challenging, may not be as satisfying, either. Here, we have a chance to create something new. 

Plattsburgh’s synergies are hard-earned. I give Carol McLean much of the credit for having a vision 15 years ago to make City Hall Place an area where pedestrians can come stroll, sit by the street on a nice summer day, have a nice meal and sip some wine. Today, she is hosting a block party on City Hall Place as one more chance before the snow flies to enjoy some music, food, wine and good company. I view the block party as an opportunity to celebrate her vision and our fair city, with the fall foliage colors at their peak.

The city actually creates this experience many times each summer. The Battle of Plattsburgh, the Mayor’s Cup, the block party, the Rotary bed races and a few other events have given us a small taste of a blocked-to-traffic pedestrian mall that Burlingtonians enjoy.

A number of patrons wish we could have a pedestrian mall downtown all summer long. To do so would create some headaches, I’m sure. Cars racing to move from the south side of the city to the north side along Rt. 9 would be forced to divert to North Catherine or Oak Street along Rt. 22. That might add a minute to their travels, or may even save them time if they are coming from or going to the Northway.

The diversion would bring them by two schools instead of by many pedestrians and cyclists. However, if City Hall Place was closed off for only the summer months, then the schools would be out of session.

Some also argue that cars speeding through downtown bring visibility to the downtown core. In the short run, this may be true. However, in the long run, if people could know the downtown as a pedestrian-friendly place where interesting shops, restaurants and history can whet their appetites for all things Plattsburgh, I bet many more, and more receptive, customers would find their way downtown on a regular basis.

Of course, Church Street had detractors almost 40 years ago when someone proposed it become a pedestrian-oriented area. Now, the very modest investment pays many multiples over in new property-tax revenue alone and has created a huge economic engine. I doubt you could find a person who would want to again run traffic along Church Street.

Burlington does not have what we have, though. Plattsburgh is the town that helped create a nation in the War of Independence and was pivotal in saving a nation in the Battle of Plattsburgh. In fact, few cities in this nation have the significant history we all share. Walking downtown is retracing the footsteps of so many characters and heroes, rogues and lovers, artists and generals, teachers and priests that forged and created a region that we should celebrate a couple of months each year, if not always.

I wish Irises and Carol McLean a wonderful block party. I most want to thank her for her vision. She saw something in one street in Plattsburgh that has been transformational. There are many such points of light in our town and our region from other luminaries. Once we can connect these points, we can create a beacon of light that brightens us all.

Colin Read is a contributor to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.