BENJAMIN GAJEWSKI/NORTH STREET STUDIOS
Greg O'Connell speaks to his efforts to restore downtown buildings, focusing effort in urban areas and taking pressure off of farmland in the town. Architect Rick Hauser (right), Avon Town Supervisor David LaFeber (far right), Louise Wadsworth (left) and Cathy Gardner (far left) also shared their experiences working on urban renewal and how it benefits farmland conservation.
Towns and villages
Community development leaders share their goals
The Genesee Valley Conservancy conducted its annual “Decision-makers Agricultural Tour” Friday, taking public officials and business leaders on a trip around Livingston County to meet with farmers and historians.
At the Avon Inn, the five dozen guests on the tour dined on beef, pork and vegetables grown on Livingston County farms and listened to five people who have helped change the course of local development over the last several years — much of it in the area of downtown development.
First, GVC land conservationist Dave Bojanowski drew a direct connection between the health of Main Street and the success of agriculture. When communities re-focus on supporting Main Street businesses, it takes “development pressure” off farms along state highways.
He also put the region’s leading industry into historical perspective as he described the presentations by Livingston County Historian Amie Alden, Livingston County Museum Director Anna Kowalchuk and others.
“As the first settlers crossed New York State, it was the Genesee Valley that really wowed them,” he said. “They saw the fertility of these soils, they saw the corn and other crops that were growing in them.”
“It was our land that drew the Wadsworth family, which became instrumental in conservation. They were the first to decide that this was not a resource to be wasted, but to be preserved for generations to come.”
Lima plans for farmland protection
Cathy Gardner, a Lima town councilperson, explained the potential of local farmland as the earth’s population continues to climb past its present seven billion.
“Three percent of the earth’s surface is tillable soil and of that, eight percent is of the quality we have here,” she said. “The economic potential that will exist will always be great for our county.”
Gardner grew up on a small dairy in the village of Pittsford — one of the last in the state to sell milk in glass bottles. Gardner told the audience that her family sold the herd as the village’s residential expansion displaced the business.
Gardner was elected following a grassroots effort in Lima to block a Walmart Supercenter on a parcel of farmland between Lima and Honeoye Falls. Since then, she’s worked to find ways to engage the town’s farmers in the political process.
“Presently, there are no farmers on elected boards or the planning board, so we formed an agricultural advisory committee. When an issue comes up that impacts farms in the town, farmers are given the chance to come in and advise the board.”
Lima received a state Department. of Agriculture and Markets grant to develop a farmland protection plan after a community survey revealed that 97 percent of resides rate agricultural preservation as a “high priority.”
As part of the plan, the town board is studying a mechanism called a “transfer of development rights.”
“It allows someone who has a large farm to sell development rights and then, nearer to the village, we will allow development to happen in a more concentrated fashion.”
The town has also looked at “conservation subdivisions,” where a large parcel of land could hold a residential or commercial development in one small corner, while preserving contiguous open space elsewhere on the property.
“We’re trying to find the right subdivision policy that will allow people to realize the equity of their land while trying to maintain a land base that isn’t fragmented.”
Town of Avon’s role in farmland conservation
In 2006, the Mulligan Farm in Avon sought to take advantage of a state farmland protection grant. The Mulligan family would agree to sell development rights to 1,161 acres the Genesee Valley Conservancy in exchange for a one-time cash payment.
The Town of Avon acted as “lead agency” on the grant, which Supervisor David LeFeber said prompted the town board to have discussions about “the importance of the farm and its land resource.”
According to LeFeber, a farmer himself, the conservancy makes sure the farm remains in compliance with the grant by being “good stewards of the land.”
“And if the farm ever changes hands, it will always remain agricultural.”
Since 2006, the adjacent Chase Farm and Coyne Farm also sold development rights to the conservancy — a total of 26,000 acres.
“It’s been a great honor for me to be a part of this program,” said LeFeber. “It’s brought in a lot of discussion about the character of Avon and the good things our community has to offer.”
Main Street LLC
Perry Architect Rick Hauser says his firm finds that its projects fall into one of two categories: 1.) “Nature at the Center,” buildings that “elevate people’s awareness of place and natural systems at any scale” and 2.) Downtown development.
Hauser understands firsthand how important farming is to the life of a small town. He married a dairy farmer who has an ownership stake in Table Rock Farm in Castile — and is an organizer of the Perry Farmers Market.
Meanwhile, he’s become more involved in how to best build structures for community funding to rehabilitate the “immense” infrastructure of existing Main Street buildings.
“I’ve come to see the interconnectedness of what it takes to initiate downtown revitalization,” said Hauser.
“It isn’t just rehabbing buildings. It isn’t just marketing. It isn’t just long range planning. It isn’t just passing ordinances. It isn’t just citizen engagement,” he said. “It’s all of these and a lot more.”
What Hauser has found is that a building owner’s short term financial needs are often at odds with the community’s long term interest in the buildings.
“We came up with an idea called ‘Main Street LLC; and it’s worked terrifically well.”
The concept creates a private for-profit development company which asks dozens of potential shareholders in the community to contribute either cash or in-kind services. “Some of us have been able to invest our skills or trades or materials,” he said “From architects, accountants, lawyers, lumberyards, to a percentage of contractor services.”
“As a result, we can generate large amounts of capital, and take advantage of tax credits which can pay back a significant amount of the initial investment.”
“Main Street LCC helps you put your money where your house is,” said Hauser. “It helps to bridge the chasm that seems to exist in a lot of communities.”
In 2003, Livingston County created the grant-funded “Downtown Revitalization Program” to help a handful of struggling small towns offer cash incentives to new businesses or businesses willing to relocate downtown.
“Our goal has been to enhance existing buildings and stimulate entrepreneurship through a revolving loan fund and a class for startup businesses held twice a year,” said county Downtown Coordinator Louise Wadsworth, a former Main Street business owner herself.
“Main Street is one of the most defining aspects of a community,” she said. “When people come to your community and see your Main Street, you want them to say, “Wow, this is a place I want to live.”
Five years ago, Wadsworth’s office was having little luck stimulating new businesses in downtown Mount Morris. “We had a few businesses apply, but we couldn’t sustain it. There wasn’t enough of a critical mass.”
Enter Greg O’Connell, a Brooklyn developer with 40 years of experience creating spaces for business and apartment rentals along the waterfront in New York City.
A 1964 SUNY Geneseo graduate, O’Connell intended to return to Livingston County to retire and “take it easy.” He bought a couple of buildings in downtown Mount Morris to keep himself busy.
Wadsworth approached him with a portfolio of other buildings for sale and urged him to “go big.” He ended up buying and renovating 20 buildings in Mount Morris, and others in Dansville and Geneseo.
“I saw a similarity between the buildings here and in Brooklyn. I wondered if we could do this again in a rural setting.”
With Wadsworth’s help, O’Connell was able to leverage public grants and tax abatements to bring rents below market price and “allow new tenants to get on their feet.”
The tax abatement applies only to improvements O’Connell has made; not to the initial value.
“Most of my tenants are paying between $125 and $300 a month,” he said. “A lot of the apartments I renovated were in poor condition. Many were unoccupied for years. It’s important to bring affordable housing to downtown. It creates activity and traffic that attracts more business.”
O’Connell’s hope is that young families will discover the value Mount Morris and decide to settle there. “They’ll see some life on Main Street and good school systems. Cities are getting to be very expensive places to live and work.”
“In New York City, people are coming back from suburbia to the cities. Is this something that’s going to happen in New York State?”
Click on a thumbnail below to launch a slideshow by Benjamin Gajewski.