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Oliver Street is on the upswing

NORTH TONAWANDA – Oliver Street could be called quirky.

It has five funeral homes, a bakery, bars, restaurants, churches, a tattoo parlor, a chocolate factory, a historic post office, a railroad museum, a roller rink, a pool hall, clothing stores, a soup shop, a motorcycle club, a giant fish store, a florist, an art gallery, a convenience store, repair shops, and more. That’s in addition to the houses and apartments sprinkled in liberally along the more than two-mile and 30-plus-block-long route that runs the length of the city.

But the luster of what once was the jewel of the blue-collar city has faded over time.

“Old,” “dingy,” “run-down” and “abandoned” are words people have used to describe Oliver Street today.

But the revitalization has begun.

Peter Witt, who owns Witter’s Sports Bar & Grill at Oliver and Schenk streets with his wife, Shelley, is one of the first to begin making upgrades using $50,000 in state grant money made available through Lumber City Development Corp.

“I grew up in NT and lived here my entire life. I saw Oliver Street the way it used to be, and it’s nice that they are investing some money in it,” Witt said. “We can only hope the snowball gets larger as it rolls down the hill with us starting this thing. It would be nice to get Oliver Street back to the prominence that it once was. It’s encouraging.”

He said the grant money helped them to put in a new floor inside Witter’s and fix up the facade outside.

“It started about two years ago, cleaning up and planting trees,” Niagara County Legislator Richard L. Andres Jr. said of the revitalization.

Andres, a former Common Council president and alderman representing the Oliver Street district, said the city doesn’t have to imagine what it can do – it has done it before, citing the successful revitalization of Webster Street into a bustling business district.

In addition, the city has created a Brownfields Opportunity Area – cleaning up contaminated industrial sites along the downtown corridor along Main Street, Webster Street, River Road and Tonawanda Island to make sites ready for incoming businesses. It was a process that has taken five years and is continuing.

“I know that if we put our minds to it, we can get it done,” Andres said.

In the last few weeks, there has been a groundswell of support with about 75 people showing up over two days to brainstorm ideas in “Revitalize Oliver Street” meetings.

Michael Zimmerman, executive director of Lumber City Development, who hosted the meetings, said Oliver Street revitalization is a subject that has been discussed for a long time.

“We decided if we are going to be serious and make it a priority, we needed to get started out on the right foot,” Zimmerman said. “Before we come up with any plans, we have to know where we are starting.”

Andres said he came to the meetings thinking that they may have to be defensive, but said people had solid ideas and wanted to roll up their sleeves and come up with some plans.

Zimmerman said they had already received $200,000 in state funding from the Western New York Regional Economic Council to focus on improving streetscapes in a one block area between Schenk and Wheatfield streets. That included funding toward the work being done at Witter’s

“But we realized that just putting some grants into some buildings was not going to magically turn everything around,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle.”

There are similar concerns for the neighborhood, Zimmerman said. “The biggest one we heard was the aesthetics of the street,” he said. “A lot of people feel the properties are not being well-maintained.”

Zimmerman said there have also been a lot of good ideas that they would help to spearhead, and though no dates have yet been set, they want to continue discussing revitalization plans.

“Some ideas are not huge, complicated things. We can do community cleanup events, a community garden or even a community landscaping project,” Zimmerman said.

“These wouldn’t be huge undertakings. There were ideas about community artwork or things that could bring out community pride, like a contest for who can decorate the block best for Christmas. Those ideas get people excited and caring about their community.”

He said Lumber City Development hopes that it can attract businesses that the community would like to see in the area. And one thing will certainly lead to the other, he said, drawing business to a positive economic climate.

Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said there is certainly a lot of interest and excitement about revitalizing Oliver Street. There have been a lot of great ideas, he said, and once things get going, progress will move more quickly.

Pappas said cleanliness alone will do a lot to revive the area.

“We want the streets themselves in better shape. We want things looking clean,” Pappas said. “We’d like the cooperation of people who either have businesses along that corridor or apartments or residences. It’s going to take a community effort, not just City Hall.

“It’s going to take the neighbors and everyone who has that interest – and I think that’s what we are getting, because of the numbers who are coming to meetings and sharing.”

The mayor said that leaders want to make sure that no part of the city is neglected.

“Things started on Webster Street. We’ve seen what can be done,” he said. “Progress has been moving, slowly, from one part of the city to the other.”

What has encouraged leaders, Pappas said, is that people in other parts of the city have also shown an interest in Oliver Street because many of them had a business there or lived there and know what it was like during its heyday.

He pointed to the new work at Witter’s and said, “A lot of times, one or two buildings or projects can be a catalyst for further development.”

Witt said he hopes so.

“We’ve been here seven years. It was just time to give the bar a face-lift, and hopefully it will be the start of something good on Oliver Street,” Witt said. “I’d like to see more businesses, whether it is bars or like the nice flower shop or bakery down the street. I’d like more of a reason for people to come down Oliver Street and see growing businesses and families walking up and down the street.”

Witt added, “I grew up in this city. My wife and I both graduated from North Tonawanda, and so did our kids. We raised our kids here. It would be nice to get the city back and growing to where it once was.”

Pappas said he grew up in an Oliver Street neighborhood and remembers what it used to be like.

“Sometimes you look back and you reminisce and you think everything was wonderful,” he said. “Well, it probably wasn’t as wonderful as we thought it was. Sometimes the past looks better, but once you start moving in a positive direction, you can see the past might have been good, but the future can be even better.”

Andres is also bullish about Oliver Street’s future.

“I think Oliver Street has a lot of strength. You think of it as a long street, but it has a lot of hidden gems along the way,” Andres said.

“We just have to connect the dots and strengthen it all together. If you connect the dots, it is not as big a job as you think it is.”

Oliver Street has “a place for a roller derby and a chocolate factory,” Andres said. “How many streets can say that?”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com