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Lockport woman opens effort to nurture small retailers

LOCKPORT – You can’t say Kathy O’Keefe doesn’t love Lockport.

Why else would she live in an abandoned flower shop for three years as she renovated it into a new store?

O’Keefe was unable to obtain any bank loans or other investment for Windsor Village, which opened Saturday on the site of what was once a greenhouse and flower shop at Prospect and Stevens streets, just over the bridge that crosses the Erie Canal at the end of West High Street.

“This is my crazy project,” O’Keefe laughed during a tour for a reporter last week. She sold her home in Wilson to obtain cash to buy the property for $80,000, netting her a store, a former greenhouse and a substantial parking lot.

“I can’t even tell you how much (money) I’ve put into it,” O’Keefe said. “I had to gut it to bring it up to code.”

With modern electrical systems, gas heat and Wi-Fi, O’Keefe, with help of her son Talan and her daughter Valerie, did the work herself.

“This is a project I should have done 10 years ago,” smiled O’Keefe, who turns 54 this week. “I’m too old to be doing this level of physical labor.”

But at least she doesn’t have a mortgage payment to make. Banks turned down her requests for business loans, apparently finding the project a long shot.

“It’s been brutal. There’s no funding, so my son and I had to do it month by month,” O’Keefe said.

Saturday, the first store opened. Grassroots Mercantile is a retail store that aims to offer products, especially toys, that are both educational and American-made.

O’Keefe is no stranger to the toy business, having operated her Noah’s Ark store in downtown Lockport for 11 years.

“I’m opening it up to help other entrepreneurs get off the ground with their projects. We won’t have any mass-market toys,” she said. “We’re going to have about 20 purveyors for Grassroots when it’s all said and done. I’m choosing people who have something extraordinary in their start-up story or their product.”

Grassroots will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and Saturdays from 10 to 4.

O’Keefe has space available on the shelves for local goods and also space for rent in the building, with the hope of luring other potential retailers to what she wants to become “a row of quaint shops nestled by the Erie Canalway Trail.”

There are two more store spaces, although they could be subdivided. O’Keefe said she knows how to hook the prospective business owners to the city and county microenterprise grant programs and other government help. She said the rent she will charge will include utilities, Wi-Fi service and Internet presence through the Windsor Village website.

O’Keefe said she wants a small-scale version of the shopping experience that still can be found in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village or Allentown sections. Or, perhaps more to the point, the kind that used to exist in downtown Lockport before it was gutted by the failed federal city planning experiment called “Urban Renewal.”

“That’s what people want,” she said, adding that her idea for Windsor Village goes back to 2004.

At first, she considered areas closer to downtown Lockport, but she was unable to obtain a grant to develop the old Dussault Foundry site at the foot of Washburn Street. It’s now being eyed for a possible hotel. She also wrote a business plan for 57 Canal St., but the city lined up the Trek Inc. research and development office there instead. Now there’s talk that 57 Canal also could become a hotel, with Trek consolidating its Lockport operations at Harrison Place.

O’Keefe’s building dates back to about 1830. She preserved the original stone walls, made of stone quarried from the path of the Erie Canal, although O’Keefe had to remortar some of it.

The building was erected by Benjamin Carpenter, a local big wheel who was on the scene long enough to become the first mayor of the City of Lockport when it was promoted from village status in 1865.

“The property’s really cool. It’s over an acre,” O’Keefe said. The parking lot is large enough to accommodate her plans to hold special children’s events on a temporary stage.

There’s an educational play aspect to the business, which is to come to the fore in late June with the planned opening of “Sprout 1825.”

It’s a history-themed play area, which O’Keefe touts as “a hands-on learning experience, like it was in 1825, the year the canal opened.”

The area will include a kitchen with a stove, an “Irish shanty” and a replica of Lyman Spalding’s General Store, one of Lockport’s earliest businesses. Also, there will be a train game with the trains going over a replica of the “upside-down bridge,” an oddly designed trestle over the Erie Canal. She will charge $2 per child for a two-hour play date.

O’Keefe’s building has a 2,000-square-foot second floor, which she hopes some day to convert into a four-to-six-room bed-and-breakfast. In the meantime, O’Keefe’s staying in what she calls “the bunkhouse” at one end of the building.

“I’m a stubborn Irishwoman. I don’t give up easily,” she said.