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ReNu Niagara aims to renew Niagara Falls

NIAGARA FALLS – Thomas Lowe the director of ReNU Niagara, has been recognized for the leadership role he has been taking in making changes in Niagara Falls.

Last year he was named “Emerging Leader of the Year” by Leadership Niagara, recognized for his skill, energy and enthusiasm. Earlier this month he was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an “Environmental Champion.”

At 30 years old, the Youngstown native has had to rely on word of mouth and faint memories of his youth to be aware of the vibrant Niagara Falls that once was, but his enthusiasm for bringing it back is contagious.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in arts administration from SUNY Fredonia in 2009, before returning to Niagara County to serve in the AmeriCorps VISTA at ReNu Niagara. By 2013 he had worked his way up and taken over as director.

ReNu Niagara, Niagara University’s community outreach arm, is located in the Levesque Institute on Park Place in Niagara Falls. The institute is committed to community engagement in Niagara Falls.

He founded Greenprint Niagara/Community Gardens and is co-chair of the Healthy Foods, Healthy People Coalition, a project expanding access to fresh and healthy foods in the city.

Next to the Levesque Institute parking lot – and visible from his office window – is the Park Place Market, a tiny farmers market that he founded with his father, Stu, and Niagara Falls resident and friend Rob Brown. It offers things such as fresh produce, homemade hummus, herbs and decorative plants, as well as simple sandwiches.

In operation for three years, it started as a fundraiser for the Beautification Commission, selling Christmas trees. It expanded when people asked for produce.

“It’s kind of an ongoing experiment for us to figure the best way to position this. Right now we are wholesaling our own produce because we know how important that is,” Lowe said.

Lowe also has served on a volunteer basis as the chairman of the Niagara Beautification Commission, which organized over 950 volunteers for a citywide cleanup effort.

He also has been a part of the development of Live NF, a program that was started to offer incentives to bring recently graduated students to Niagara Falls and has grown into a community pride initiative. Live NF and ReNU Niagara have been successful in promoting a grassroots community effort called Pints 4 Progress, which encourages people to meet casually over drinks and food and promote their ideas about projects to benefit Niagara Falls.

“Pints 4 Progress is what ReNu was meant to do and that’s giving a voice to the community.” Lowe said. “It’s empowering them to get involved and make decisions. We see new people every time. We’ve had 17 events and none of them have turned into a negative criticism of a project. They workshop the idea and try to implement it and make it successful. It’s people who love this city and want to see it improve. It’s genuine positivity and optimism.”

How long has ReNu Niagara been around?

We’ve pretty consistently been in operation for 10 years. It was opened in 2006 by HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) as a Community Outreach Partnership Center. The original director was Jill Schuey. She was here until I took over. It was federally funded for the first three years. Niagara University internalized the program after the federal funding ended. They absorbed the salary of the director position.

It seems like a natural fit for a city like Niagara Falls. What do you try to do in Niagara Falls?

Our mission, our bottom line, is capacity building. We are kind of the front door to the university in the community. We work less with students and faculty and more with organizations and residents. If a resident has a project idea, our door is open. They can knock on the door and pitch the idea and we would try to help them figure out a plan to implement it.

What is your goal? Is it to change Niagara Falls?

Revitalization certainly is a goal. There are certain things that need to be changed about Niagara Falls, but there is also a unique personality. Jill used to say, “Niagara Falls has a small-town feel, but has bigger issues like other cities.” You want to maintain that small-town atmosphere, but there are definitely some changes that have to happen. When you lose more than 50 percent of your population, you definitely want to fix that.

It really can’t go back to the industrial town it once was, can it?

For decades, after industry left, we were waiting for them to come back. We didn’t accept tourism as an industry until 30 or so years after industry left. People always compare us to the Canadian side, right or wrong, but they got a jump start on tourism as an industry. They also had less industry on that side. I’m learning this stuff by talking to people and hearing about what it had once been.

How did you decide to get involved with AmeriCorps VISTA?

I got involved right out of college. I was looking into the Peace Corps and some type of foreign service. But I knew my country needed help and not only my country, but my hometown needed help. I call my self a dual citizen. I grew up in Youngstown, but my mom’s side of the family lived in Niagara Falls, so my summers were spent here. I saw an opportunity (for AmeriCorps) in Niagara Falls – most people travel (away from home), but if the need’s at home I’m not going to ignore that. I’ve heard the stories of what Niagara Falls once was and I knew what it is now and those things don’t match up. My mom would tell me stories of going into the Jenss Store, but I really don’t recall it.

Tell me about Pints 4 Progress is that your program?

No. This is a grassroots program. We, as ReNu Niagara, were involved in developing Live NF and coming up with that program, along with other partners. That was a housing incentive program. Live NF developed Pints 4 Progress to promote community pride. We take turns getting the food and music to promote the event, but Pints 4 Progress is as grassroots as possible. It’s 130 people coming together and spending $10 of their own money to support a community project. We don’t want anyone to be a controlling entity over it.

You talked about the positivity of programs like Pints 4 Progress, but people outside the city have a much more negative view of the city. What do people not know about Niagara Falls?

People think of the waterfall, but there’s great people that live in the city. In these days of social media, they see the people that complain and criticize a lot and the complainers tend to be the loudest because the people who are doing things in the city don’t spend time typing about it, they just get it done. Don’t let the small group of cynics and complainers, and frankly do-nothings persuade you to think this is not a great city, a city with potential.

How do you show your optimism?

When we do our Live NF stuff, like Pints 4 Progress or Clean Mobs, we go out there and do it. Eventually people are going to see the payoff and get involved one way or another.

How would you promote future development?

We have neighborhoods with names here. I’d love to go through the practice of working with these neighborhoods to find an identity or even redefine an identity. A lot of these neighborhoods were defined by the cultures that lived here many years ago. It’s not segregated as much as it used to be, but they could create a new identity or even play off the historical one. It would be a great way to create ownership in neighborhoods.

You have also been working to create a healthier Niagara Falls.

The Healthy Food, Healthy People program is something that I co-chair. We got a grant through the New York State Health Foundation, but we are part of the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative. Our focus is on the North End, everything north of Pine Avenue, excluding Deveaux, and working with residents to establish a vision and create food security.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.