Tonawanda News — It’s been talked about for years — through political campaigns, among residents and by business owners along what was once North Tonawanda’s commercial hub.
But with the obtainment $200,000 a grant through the New York State Main Street Program, the process will finally kick off this year.
Oliver Street, once a lively business corridor in the Lumber City, has seen better days. As crime has surged along the street and city leaders plan to launch its turnaround, a small conglomerate of business still breathes life into it.
And at least some of those businesses will get the backing of matching funds, handed down from the state in December, which will be used for facade and interior improvements.
Acquired by the Lumber City Development Corporation, the city’s community development arm, the focus of the grant will center between Wheatfield and Schenck streets, after a survey taken last year pinpointed where the need and interest lies.
Michael Zimmerman, planning and development coordinator for the LCDC, said his outfit shifted its original focus away from Webster Street after it polled several hundreds business owners along the entire stretch of Oliver Street.
“That section, the section between Wheatfield and Schenck, had the most responses,” he said, adding that those in the area tendered about 30 of the 60 responses among all those polled. “It’s a very competitive grant, only 25 percent of those who applied got funding. We needed a target area and we wanted to make sure that the state would see improvement through the grant.”
Zimmerman said about four to seven businesses will get up to $50,000 through the grant, with a requirement to match the funding out of pocket.
City officials hope that the investments will have a snowball effect, much like the early days of the Webster Street revival, which began in earnest about five years ago, when the various businesses there received one of two earlier Main Street Program grants.
That funding, about $400,000, is credited with updating several facades where Lou’s Diner and Partners in Art are located, but also more involved refurbishments like the Canalside Creamery and Yummy Thai.
“We hope to have the same impact, the same kind of catalyzing both for people and businesses to invest in the area,” Zimmerman said. “Whether it’s the business already there or maybe even a new business”
Mayor Rob Ortt said improving Oliver Street will not be a quick fix, but the funding would serve as a “first step” toward a reversal of what has been a downward economic spiral, with a long-term vision to turn the street into something resembling Buffalo’s Elmwood Village.
“There was a time when Oliver Street was the main business district,” Ortt said. “This is one step, but it’s an important step.”
Second Ward Alderwoman Donna Braun, who began her first term on the common council this year, said she has heard the rumblings of resident who live in her neighborhood for years.
“We’ve all seen it go down,” she said. “Part of my reason for running is trying to get the neighborhood back up to where it can be. Just look at Webster. Even if it’s little by little, it’s exciting to bring Oliver Street back.”
Ortt and Braun said they will begin reaching out to local business along Oliver Street in the coming weeks to gauge interest and share information about possible funding disbursements.
Zimmerman noted that it will be several more months before the grant money comes in to the LCDC, with plans to start work by the end of the summer.
“Downtown and Webster have been the focus for a long time,” he said. “We’ll continue to work there. But we feel there’s been a lot of success down there and its a good time to branch that success off to Oliver Street.”