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Street reopening helped pave way to growth in Rome

Nicole A. Hawley
Staff writer
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Posted 12/29/22

With dance instruction, local artists’ works on display and independent films being screened and other special events, Rome’s Downtown Arts District continues to develop and grow.

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Street reopening helped pave way to growth in Rome


ROME — With dance instruction, local artists’ works on display and independent films being screened, to restaurants and a bookshop hosting musical performances, author talks and other special events, Rome’s Downtown Arts District continues to develop and grow.

But without efforts to reopen West Dominick Street more than 25 years ago during former Mayor Joseph A. Griffo’s administration, Rome’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative would not have been possible today. Griffo was elected three times as mayor beginning in 1991.

“One of the challenges we had when I became mayor, was that we had spent millions of federal dollars undertaking urban renewal and then we realized the project hadn’t worked,” said Griffo. “We had empty storefronts and urban renewal never truly materialized. There was a negative connotation of that area (downtown), and lack of connection and lack of activity.”

“This time of year it was depressing,” he said, referring to the former Mall.

“It was cold and no one would walk around on the plaza. So then I had to take a look and I said, ‘We have to do something — we had urban renewal from the 1970s to 91 — almost 15-20 years — and we realized one of the biggest running jokes was that the Living Bridge was dead. It never reached its potential, and there were even problems with criminal activity at the bridge,” Griffo added.

So came the decision to “undo” what had been done, the now state senator recalled.

“The bigger concern” at the time, “was that we spent all this money on urban renewal, and now it would take more money to undo it,” he said. “But it was my belief, and in talking with the business community in Rome at the time, that we needed to undertake a new direction and undo what was done.”

A major part of Griffo’s vision for downtown, was first reopening West Dominick Street and then tearing down the Living Bridge.

“We went to work to try and secure state and federal money, in addition to city money invested, to undertake this and with the help of (then senator) Raymond Meier, and (former assemblywoman) RoAnn Destito, and Sherry Boehlert (in Congress), we were able to amass significant federal monies,” said Griffo. “We even redid the Liberty-James Parking Garage at the time.”

The senator recalled opening night for West Dominick Street, with the song, “Downtown,” by Petula Clark being played in the background. He said the special ceremony was nostalgic for the businesses owners, like the Engelberts, who “stuck it out,” and the re-opening immediately brought new life to the downtown area.

Griffo said a master plan for the area was developed, which eventually led to opportunities for his successors, including current Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo, to reinvigorate downtown.

“We planted a lot of seeds and undertook a number of projects, and it’s good to see things are now growing,” he said. “...Now other mayors are continuing that investment and have a plan. A long time ago people would ask me, ‘What’s one word to describe your vision?,’ and I had difficulty answering in one word...Ultimately I came up with one word — vibrancy — people want a vibrant community, and I think you’re starting to see and feel that.”

Here’s what’s happening at some downtown businesses in 2023:

216 W. Dominick St.: The Copper Easel and superofficial and superofficial coffee will partner for more special events, especially those taking place outside their storefront once the weather improves in the spring. Meanwhile, Jon Matwijec-Walda, owner of superofficial, is continuing to increase his menu of coffee, tea and variations, as well as other eccentric beverages, while Adam Chrisman, owner of The Copper Easel, is working out a slate of art classes and other instructional events. 

218 W. Dominick St.: John Hayes O’Neill Studio of Dance is working out their spring schedule, which will include the studio’s annual “Evening of Dance” on March 18 in tribute to the late Matt Pitcher. There will also be a late spring presentation of the ballet,”Sleeping Beauty,” by Tchaikovsky, and The Nutcracker ballet will be held Dec. 8 and 9, 2023.

236 W. Dominick St.: Keaton & Lloyd Bookshop will continue to increase their stock of books and “quirky” gifts, and also plan to add to their schedule of special events in 2023. Next month they have scheduled a “BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) Hangout” on Jan. 15, and a “Hygge Hangout” on the Jan. 22, which owner Julie Whittemore describes as “a celebration of Scandinavian coziness.” 

242 W. Dominick St.: The Balanced Chef was recently renovated by the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible team, headed by host Robert Irvine. The show is tentatively slated to air in March.

• 254 W. Dominick St.: Copperccino’s Bistro, Bakery & Coffee was the first business to “take a chance on downtown after a long time,” Owner Michael Brown said.

He said, “We tried hard to get somebody to do something down here, so we figured we’d better do something. We did a lot of market research to find out what people wanted and by far, people wanted a coffee shop and bistro. We wanted to make sure we gave the public what they felt downtown needed, and people have responded.”

Brown said he wanted Copperccino’s to be a “catalyst” for what’s going on in the downtown area today, and now, “It’s a matter of trying to keep up with it.”

He said, “We’re heartened by everyone’s commitment to see things expand and develop here. With Copper City Lofts opening and people living downtown, that’s huge and a really big deal for this community... And as a community, we need to talk more about public transport and how to get more people downtown.”

260 W. Dominick St.: Franca’s Wine Bar will continue with their live music events, even through the winter. In the spring they will begin projecting images on an exterior wall of the Keaton & Lloyd Bookshop, promoting the Arts District, and occasionally hosting special event screenings.

• 265 W. Dominick St.: Engelbert’s Jewelers, Inc. Owner Sarah Engelbert Rushton said nothing new is planned for the physical store in 2023, however, “we’re trying to do more as a digital footprint.” And as for developments downtown and what it means for her business, “It’s very exciting seeing what’s going on, on this street, with all the businesses and people walking around. It’s been very beneficial for us,” she said.

• 229 W. Dominick St.: Gary Colmey, owner of Gary’s Indoor Garden Supply, said his business has been downtown just about longer than anyone, as he moved to his space in 1999. Then his business was known as Gary’s Music.

“Every time I would see someone get a key to one of these stores (previously), they would ask me how I feel about the rebirth of downtown, and I would say, ‘Where?,’” Colmey recalled. “But if you ask me that today, I say, ‘I feel pretty good about it.’ You can see them (businesses) getting deliveries — people walking in and out — and it’s really encouraging.”

He said, “Maybe it’s psychological, but when that (Capitol Theatre) marquee comes on at night, it’s pretty glorious down here. To see what’s going down here on weekend nights, it’s pretty cool. I’m very encouraged and delighted to still be here, even though the business model has changed. But appears to be doing just fine.”


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