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Pine Avenue businesses make pitch to fight blight

NIAGARA FALLS – Before the chain stores and the casino, there was always Pine Avenue.

This bustling strip acted as a gateway to Niagara Falls State Park with a strong business association and even stronger ethnic heritage proclaiming itself as the “Little Italy of Niagara Falls.”

While the sign boasting of its heritage remains, the pride appears to have left, according to Sylvia Virtuoso, past president of the defunct business association.

“We invested in Pine Avenue when it was the place to be,” Virtuoso told members of the City Council recently. “We naively thought our building would be worth enough to retire. We couldn’t give it away now.”

She and her husband, Guido, own Guido’s Upholstery, a shop they purchased 35 years ago during the city’s heyday.

The Pine Avenue of today has vacant shops with torn awnings, peeling paint, torn-off wood, crumbling brick and rusty protruding signs. Others have shabby hand-painted signs and piled-up garbage that violates city codes.

Virtuoso said the list of code violators is growing.

But she said she is not blaming the city, which acted quickly to serve code violators and came in with its ZOOM Team of code enforcers to clean up and trim overgrown trees. Rather, she wants to serve notice to business owners and landlords.

“A coating of paint can make a big difference,” Virtuoso told The Buffalo News.

She said last July a number of longtime business owners, who all have been in business on Pine Avenue for more than 30 years, met to try to stop the encroaching blight.

“It’s bringing our property values down,” Virtuoso said. “As past president of the Pine Avenue Business Association, they asked me to take a leadership role. So I did. We don’t have an active association.”

She said they photographed buildings that have been longtime problems and shared these concerns with the city inspections department. The city immediately acted and sent out violation notices. Some acted to make corrections, but Virtuoso said the lengthy process to fine landlords and then take them to court is frustrating. And in the meantime the problems continues to grow.

She told the Council that she registers as a landlord and property owner and has done so since day one. But she wants to know if these other property owners are doing the same so the city can tell if they are a legitimate business with a tax identification number, permits and insurance.

“Why isn’t it equally important to know what type of business is opening as much as it is who the rent is going to?” Virtuoso asked Council members. “Who can we count on to improve the quality of life? You all live here. Is this acceptable to you?”

She told The News that rusted and protruding signs left on vacant buildings for decades should be removed by the city.

“We are not asking for people to put a ton of money into their buildings. We are showing how a simple solid paint, or if you can repair a canopy, take the canopy down,” said Virtuoso. “A canopy looks nice, but not when its torn. And they are expensive to replace.”

Virtuoso said business owners should be informed of Community Development facade funds available for existing businesses that they are not taking advantage of.

She pointed out the dramatic change at 1622 Pine Ave. after Summit Life Outreach Center took over a vacant building and painted and repaired awnings.

But she said other new businesses are putting up hand-painted signs on plywood, which she said “look terrible” and should not be allowed.

She said the Pine Avenue Business Association technically exists but does not have any members. She said she would like to see all the district business memberships join together and make one strong business association for the entire city.

She said their role in bringing up these concerns is to make the city aware, but also to let their neighbors and fellow business owners know that they are willing to help in any way they can.

“We used to have a paint program,” Virtuoso said. “Maybe we can provide paint. If you give someone a five-gallon can of paint, maybe they will fix the problem. And some people don’t really pay attention until it is pointed out.”

She said people get an impression of the city as they leave Military Road, which is “all booming and great,” to head downtown.

“They drive down Pine Avenue. They have to get there somehow and we shouldn’t give them the impression that we are dying,” she said.