Store owners in Bagg’s Square see bright future in store for downtown amid plans for growth, tourism
UTICA — With big plans for Utica’s U-District and Bagg’s Square, business owners in the area offered their thoughts and visions for the future.
Earlier this month, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said, in his State of the County speech, that tourism would be key in the revitalization of Utica, with more development of the U-District surrounding the Adirondack Bank Center, focusing on safety, lighting, parking, and landscaping.
Local business owners in the Bagg’s Square area are excited, but offered their opinion on what needs to be considered for the future.
Howard Potter is co-owner of A&P Master Images with his wife Amanda, starting the business in their home 19 years ago. A&P Master Images offers graphic design, printing, embroidery, vinyl, and other services to their clientele, from embroidering uniforms for the fire department to vinyl decals for businesses and municipalities.
“We started our business during the mortgage crisis, and we were very fortunate to grow even then,” he said. “And we’re still growing in leaps and bounds.”
The Water Street workshop has been home to A&P Master Images for 10 years, but the building sat vacant for years before the Potters moved their business there.
“This location was never considered prime real estate back then,” Potter said. “And this area has seen a lot of development. There’s a lot of interest in the properties around us. Utica Coffee just purchased building space across from us and did an amazing restoration of the building. So there’s a lot of interest and development going on.”
Potter said back when the Oneida County and New York State invested in the Adirondack Bank Center, it kicked off so much un Utica. “The Aud kicked off the heartbeat of entertainment in our city and helped bring people from out of town,” he said. “It creates a draw. When you’re looking to purchase a home, the third thing on the list people look for is entertainment. Between the Aud and the Nexus center, there’s an expected 500,000 visitors to Utica a year.”
And with that many people coming to Utica, everyone benefits, Potter said — from the restaurants feeding visitors to retail centers opening doors, all bringing in sales tax to benefit the city.
One of these restaurants in Bagg’s Square is Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, located on Liberty Street.
According to Mark Mojave, owner of Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, the building was constructed in the 1840s and was an expansion of the Bachelor’s Seed Store. Harry Gerber and his son, Leo, decided to get out of the gardening business and get into moonshining when prohibition hit.
“They saw there was more money to be made in booze than gardening supplies,” Mojave said. “So the seed store became a speakeasy. And when prohibition ended in 1933, it became Gerber’s Tavern.”
Gerber’s Tavern ran until 1976 when Leo “...turned the key and walked away,” as Mojave put it. After that, the building sat unused until it was reopened in 2013 after a major restoration project saw the original bar back to its former glory, complete with original furnishings and decorations.
“There’s a proud history here stretching back of investment and involvement in the city of Utica in its oldest neighborhood,” Mojave said.
Mojave admitted it was a challenge to run Gerber’s during the construction of the highway project last year.
“There was a 20-foot trench right outside my front door,” he said. “But I still held the opinion it was well worth the investment. And I’ve seen the benefit.”
Gerber’s once had a state highway six feet from its front door and was not pedestrian-friendly at all — something that deeply concerned him when people were walking alongside traffic.
“I’d see people walking in the street from the hockey game, and they were forced to walk the shoulder of the highway,” Mojave said. “I was never comfortable with that.”
Since then, Gerber’s has a sidewalk and walkable paths along it and it’s been a night and day difference.
“When I see people walking through neighborhoods with dogs, that to me is a good sign,” Mojave said. “For visitors and families, that quality of life is important. They feel safe and comfortable. That’s a good omen.”
Mojave said he’d seen investments made in the city but wanted to make sure things were done right.
“I know change is difficult,” Mojave said. “But it’s exciting and exhilarating. I’m a former commissioner of urban and economic development for Utica, and I’ve always liked [Bagg’s Square] and always believed in the downtown.”
Mojave felt the projections for how many people will be drawn to the new Nexus center are being underestimated.
“It might not be an issue today, but we need to address how pedestrians and vehicles interact in the near future and where they interact,” he said. “We see the vehicles driving through our city streets, and while we don’t see the pedestrians, they’re coming. It behooves the community to cast ahead and minimize friction between vehicles and pedestrians.”
As part of that pedestrian-vehicle coexistence, Potter said there’s a need for more Department of Public Works employees to better the city.
“When you look at the city, the one thing we’re lacking is DPW workers,” Potter said. “When you look at the landscape and the kind of weather we face and talk about bringing people into the city safely, we should look at adding on to DPW workers.”
Potter said the development of the Nexus Center and the Aud has brought a sense of pride back to the city of Utica and is creating a family-friendly environment. And to ensure that can happen, “...roads need to be cleared, and there needs to be a place to park.”
From what he’s heard, Potter said the staging area behind A&P Master Images would be developed into a parking lot, giving people easier access to the area around it for pedestrian traffic.
Another thing Potter’s interested in is the harbor point walkable bridge. “It’s been proposed and would have a walkable, bikeable bridge to the Nexus Center,” he said. “The only problem I see is if it will be safe, so people don’t have to walk in the street due to snowbanks. If we, as a city, can develop a safer and cleaner path from one side of the bridge to the other to these entertainment areas, it will free up parking and be positive reinforcement.”
Mojave said walkability isn’t a new concept but one that’s evolved and grown in the city of Utica.
“It’s an amazing time in the city of Utica and the region... I think the future, with the Nexus later this year and the hospital next year, and more, I think is shaping this community’s future,” Mojave said.
Mojave said there’s nothing major in store for Gerber’s Tavern, save for a re-worked menu offering a full complement of dishes.
“We’re planning on expanding our food options in the near future,” he said. “We had been closed during the pandemic for 19 months, and I think we’ll continue to grow. And we’ll grow again once we offer a full menu. Because right now, people want to feel normal again, and I think one way to feel normal is to come, sit down, have a beer and have a conversation. It lets us reconnect.”
As part of the opening, Marcus Corasanti was hired as a full-time bar manager. “He’s done a great job digging in and has been carrying the day-to-day weight,” Mojave said. “To grow a business, it’s central to have the right people in the right place.”
Mojave added that Gerber’s is currently hiring staff across multiple positions and encouraged people to call and inquire.
Over at A&P Master Images, there are plans to put up a new building right next to the Water Street building measuring 2,200 square feet totaling around $350,000. The new building would serve as a workshop for vinyl graphics and sublimation and offer more room compared to the current workspace.
Regardless, both businesses plan to stay around for as long as possible and be a part of Utica’s growing history.
“It’s an exciting time in Utica,” Mojave said.
For more information about A&P, visit masteryourimage.com or call 315-793-1934
For more information about Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, visit" www.gerbers1933tavern.com or call 315-534-4835.
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