By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Citizens, urban planning professionals and political leaders gathered at the Rapids Theatre on Main Street to listen to some folks with a great deal of experience in transforming urban environments.
The two planning professionals — Charles D’Aprix and Michael Lydon — were brought into town to speak as part of the Main Street Symposium, an all-day walking tour with lectures and conversation.
People came from around the region to discuss the once-bustling Main Street of the 1950s, filled with shops and entertainment spots that has since become a sleepy stretch of road plagued by vacancy and blight.
Most of the conversation — both from the lecturers and audience members — revolved around what could be done to bring life back tho Main Street and the city, with the often discussed causes of the downfall taking a back seat for the afternoon.
D’Aprix is an economic development specialist with three decades of experience and a knack for helping folks fill empty store front. He said the key to filling blighted areas with profitable businesses is creating an environment that fosters entrepreneurship.
“For economic development you don’t need a lot of money but you do need a hell of a lot of creativity,” he said.
And it’s important for municipalities to encourage people who want to start businesses and offer them a system of support. A key part of a successful effort to encourage entrepreneurship is setting up a centralized office in the target area with a qualified and competent staff — whether volunteer or paid — to offer advice and information to business start ups.
“You need a central location,” D’Aprix said.
The old model of economic development — chasing one company and trying to lure them to your town with incentives — is outdated D’Aprix said, and no longer works in today’s economy.
“We know that most jobs today come from small businesses,” he said. “The old smoke stack chasing, the old economic development model, it just isn’t working.”
Lydon is an urban planner who literally helped write the book on what is known as tactical urbanism, the implementation of small changes in a community that end up having an outsized economic and social affect.
Lydon said tactical urbanism is not about putting together huge projects that will last for decades, but about experimenting with smaller changes and seeing what works for each individual community.
“It’s hard to address everything all at once,” he said. “Being willing to be nimble and deal with things as they come up in a systemic way is really, really important.”
Lydon said that by planners and citizens taking small measures to improve communities — sometimes even outside the bounds of city codes and laws — bureaucratic red tape can be avoided and, if those changes create a positive change in the city, local officials are often willing to overlook the small transgressions.
“For too long our processes have been either too top down or too bottom up,” Lydon said. “The two have to meet.”
From the Rapids Theatre, attendees — about 100 people showed up — moved on to hear presentation on preservation, pop-up parks and vacancy strategies at sites along Main Street on a sunny March afternoon.
Bernice Radle of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists took a post in the Earl W. Brydges Library to talk about how the work her group has been doing in Buffalo could be applied in the Falls.
“Every building that’s vacant that you see, think of it as an opportunity,” she said.
Radle, who grew up on Cedar Avenue, said that Niagara Falls has an advantage over Buffalo in that there aren’t entire blocks that have been destroyed.
“The historic fabric sits here,” Radle said.
Gloria Manthos, 29, recently moved to Niagara Falls from Arlington, Texas.
She attended the event and said she saw great potential in the discussions she was a part of throughout the day.
“It’s the ability to take something that’s already been created and transform it,” she said.
Manthos, an environmental science student, said she had not experienced such an intellectually stimulating event since attending a costly seminar on horticulture.
“We need to unite under the fact that we are residents,” Manthos said.
Tom Lowe and Matt Green, the two young city dwellers who organized the event, thought it was a great success.
Green said he was particularly happy with the large turnout, especially the far reach that the event had with people, both young and old, coming from throughout the region.
“From this we really just hope to get some actionable goals, as far as where everyone’s interest lies,” he said.
Lowe said he was glad that things stayed positive throughout the day.
“For four hours of community meetings in Niagara Falls in keeping people positive for that long, I think there was only one instance (of negativity),” Lowe said. “I think that says a lot.”