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Mountain Home Magazine

Clear Vision

May 01, 2019 12:30PM
by Carrie Hagen


This month, thousands will flock to one of America’s finest art towns when Corning celebrates GlassFest, a weekend extravaganza of art, food, music, crafts, and, of course, glassmaking. From May 23 to May 26, the town’s population of 10,000 will bloom as it plays host to visitors exploring everything from the Rockwell, a renowned western art museum and Smithsonian affiliate, to the Corning Museum of Glass, which holds one of the finest glass collections in the world. Along the way, they’ll stroll past Romanesque and art deco architecture on Market Street, watch glass shows in the square, take in concerts at Riverfront Park, shop in high-end boutiques, and taste wine under the gaze of decorative terra cotta creatures perched throughout the historic district.

An annual celebration of fine art and craftsmanship, GlassFest highlights a place and the people who make products there. It illustrates the unique partnership between a global corporation and the hometown that grew along with it, never abandoned by it. It tells the story of a man with a vision to nurture community regardless of cost, and the team that has helped to realize that vision.

Now in its tenth year, GlassFest is a signature event of the Gaffer District, the historic downtown’s business community. Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of the Gaffer District, has led the festival’s production since it began. A native of the Finger Lakes region, she wasn’t very familiar with the town of Corning when she first visited with a friend in 2002.

“I knew there was a big flood there in 1972,” she remembers, “and growing up, I knew my friends’ schools had gone to Corning Museum of Glass.” At the time, Fabrizi worked for The Hotel School at Cornell University. When she saw Market Street’s beautiful architecture and shopping options, she thought, “I could move my career here.” After serving as president of the Corning Area Chamber of Commerce, Coleen assumed leadership of the Gaffer District in January 2008.

“The first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘How fortunate we are to have Corning Enterprises behind us!’”

Corning Enterprises organized in 1983 as the economic development subsidiary of Corning Glass Works (Corning Glass Works was renamed Corning Incorporated in 1989). Its first president was Amo Houghton (Amory Houghton, Jr., the great-great grandson of the Corning Glass Works founder, also named Amory Houghton). It was Amo Houghton, says Corning Enterprises president G. Thomas (Tom) Tranter Jr., who envisioned Enterprises and penned its mission statement: “to facilitate, collaborate and partner with local leaders to improve the economy, strengthen human services, and improve the quality of life in the Corning, New York area.”

“You can’t deny the difference,” Coleen says, between Corning and small towns without the investment of an industry that bestows “enormous generosity, generous financial incentives, and community stewardship and volunteerism.”

Agnes and Her Aftermath

In June 2001, the New York Times traced the Corning corporation’s “deep involvement” in the community to 1972, the year of Hurricane Agnes and her devastating flood. “Since then,” according to the paper, “it has helped build bridges, sewers, hotels and museums.” But in The Women of Corning: the Untold Story, a 2018 book commissioned by Amory Houghton, Jr., historian Geoffrey Kabaservice writes that Corning Inc.’s investment in the town predates Hurricane Agnes by almost 100 years. Corporate involvement dates at least to 1875, when the company incorporated as Corning Glass Works and “had a transformative effect on the town,” making “improvements in transportation, machinery, and industry” during Reconstruction.

Born and raised in Corning, Amo Houghton, now ninety-two, recalls the importance his family’s company played in sustaining the community during the Depression. Images of people helping one another—and needing one another—made deep impressions on him as a boy.

“The men were out of work and it was the women who kept the family together,” Amo says. “The women of our community were absolutely amazing.” Of particular note to him was the compassion of his mother. Kabaservice writes that Laura Houghton worried about the effect of hardship on children, and became a prominent figure in the local Girl Scouts, doing what she could to include “girls blind, deaf, and handicapped in scouting activities.” Both of Amo’s parents—Laura and Amory, who would become the U.S. ambassador to France—taught their children about the responsibilities of their social position. When, after the Depression, locals worried that Corning Glass Works would move to a more advantageous part of the country, the Houghton family publicly stated they would not, building confidence in the region’s people and its economic stability.

Amo reiterated that reassurance decades later, after Hurricane Agnes and the overflowing Chemung River destroyed 19,000 homes and 1,700 businesses, leaving thousands homeless and all without power. On the morning of June 27, 1972, when Amo was CEO of Corning Glass Works, he addressed Corning’s grieving, devastated people on the radio. He called them heroes, and said the company wasn’t going anywhere despite their shared losses.

“We’re not licked,” he told The Gaffer around the same time. “We are going to bounce back.” That summer of 1972, CGW invested $400,000 in a summer work program for adolescents that would assist needy residents in cleaning up their properties. Through the Youth Emergency Service, more than 400 young people helped recover approximately 4,500 homes.

Over the next ten years, Corning Glass Works would make significant business changes that would multiply the company’s community investments and partnerships, preparing the way for Corning Enterprises.

More Than Just Dishes

Jack Benjamin arrived in Corning from Rochester in 1973. He went to work as a flood plain manager for Three Rivers Development Corporation, a nonprofit private development company founded in 1966. Jack, who would later become the president of Three Rivers, studied the flood plain, considered how to manage it better, and helped the town of Corning optimize the use of open spaces. Corning Glass Works and the Houghton family, says Jack, formed “a true partnership” with Three Rivers, financing and providing many of the resources necessary to help recovery efforts.

“In many cases, communities go into the quick fix,” says Jack. But CGW, under the leadership of Amo Houghton, invested in “the kinds of projects that needed to be done so [the town’s] future was sustained.” Projects included removing mud from basements, replacing century-old water lines on Market Street, installing fire protection systems flows and new services into buildings, and building mobile home parks for those temporarily homeless.

Numerous hats, helmets, and suits from CGW, Three Rivers, and other nonprofits worked together on the clean-up. The organizations shared leadership duties well. “For whatever reason, all the personalities seemed to work,” Jack remembers. “Interpersonal relationships are really key. It’s all about the network.”

Corning’s internal network would shift in the next couple of years. The sale of television picture tubes plummeted (Japanese advances cut into Corning’s domination of the market), and the profit loss, combined with the recession of 1974-1975, led to significant downsizing. A profile of Amo Houghton in the September 1977 issue of Forbes said the company was transitioning between business models. “The old Corning was TV, scientific glass, Corning Ware and glass for light bulbs. The present Corning is much broader, thanks in good part to its highly respected $50-million-a-year research effort.”

The research effort was in fiber optics.

“Of communication by optical wave fibers,” Amo told Forbes, “they may do for us in the future what television or lighting did for us in the past.” He was right. Optical fiber technology reshaped telecommunications and made the internet accessible to all.

Richard Rahill, a former president of Corning Enterprises, says it was this very research that prompted the subsidiary. At the time, he says, Corning Glass Works was “primarily known for dishware.” To recruit and engage engineers and physicists, Richard remembers, the company needed an answer for questions like, “Why would we come to a small company in upstate New York that made pie plates?” Corning Glass Works had to provide good reasons for people to move into its community and stay there.

Richard, now eighty-four, had moved to Corning after working in Chicago as a salesman for the company’s electronic products. When CGW sold his division, he joined a team that included Amo Houghton, his younger brother Jamie Houghton, and two others who subsequently conceptualized the launch of what became Corning Enterprises. In 1983, Amo passed the role of CEO to Jamie and became Corning Enterprises’ first president. In an email, Amo wrote, “The thought behind forming Corning Enterprises was to focus on the things that created the atmosphere and environment necessary for our community to grow and most importantly to keep and attract people.”

Enterprises’ first project was the rescue and development of the recently defunct Watkins Glen International racetrack, host of the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One for nineteen years, which had sold in a foreclosure sale to the Bank of New York in 1982. (For more on that story see Corning to the Rescue).

“There was a real fear of losing the track and for the future of Watkins Glen, the economic engine of Schuyler County,” says Ted Marks. A racing enthusiast, he had conducted business in Corning for decades as, among other things, a printer, a bookstore owner, and a head of the Chamber of Commerce. Today, he is the owner of Atwater Vineyards on Seneca Lake, where his family has had a home since 1907. The Watkins Glen track played a significant role in his childhood memories. “My parents would take me to the races in the early 50s. Watkins Glen attracted top race car drivers, and I would weasel my way in to meet these people,” he chuckles. The track closed in 1982, says Ted, because its success outgrew its managing abilities. At the advice of a CGW executive named Jim Riesbeck, Amo and Jamie Houghton agreed that the redevelopment of Watkins Glen International would be Enterprise’s first project. Jim Riesbeck oversaw the effort.

Corning Enterprises went on to invest in virtually every area of the community, including the redevelopment of the historic district’s downtown, an effort that included attracting hotels, offering seed grants to retail and restaurant owners, constructing new buildings for Corning Community College, and convincing Wegman’s grocers to open its first store outside of Rochester in Corning.

“Bob Wegman had no interest in locating outside of Rochester,” Richard Rahill chuckles. But once he and Corning Enterprises convinced him to visit, Wegman “fell in love with the place,” returned to his board, and told them, “We’re going to do it!”

Saving History, Creating a Future

The steering committee for Corning Enterprises conceptualized a robust downtown redevelopment plan, one aimed at fostering urban renewal without demolishing Market Street’s nineteenth century buildings. Investing in the future by preserving the past, CGW gave the city of Corning a $1.4 million renewal grant so it could work alongside the Market Street Restoration Agency to save 175 buildings from the wrecking ball. Corning Enterprises later helped business owners secure space in these very buildings.

The Enterprises infrastructure, says Ted Marks, helped business owners “accomplish what we wanted to do” without “telling us what to do.” Current president Tom Tranter gives 47 E. Market Street, now the home of a Tommy Hilfiger store, as an example. When the retail store was the home of a Rite Aid, Tranter says, building owner George Connors approached Corning Enterprises with a question of how to utilize unused space in the building, which measures over 20,000 square feet.

“Jamie [Houghton] asked, ‘Have you ever thought of making the upper floors apartments?’” Tom remembers. “If you’d consider that, we’d give you a one-time grant and see if it’s something you want to do.” George Connors agreed, and the idea trickled down Market Street, which now has over 140 renovated, high-end apartments.

“Our objective is to make this a community that our employees want to live in and stay in,” says Chris Sharkey, vice president at Corning Enterprises. Chris was instrumental in the consolidation and rebranding of Corning’s downtown—Corning’s Gaffer District—in 2004, and has served as its board president for the last eight years. “Market Street’s rebuild after the flood was the country’s first Main Street revitalization. Launching the Gaffer District was the next logical step.” She now chairs the Gaffer District’s board of trustees. In her over thirty years with Corning Inc., she is proudest of the work she has helped to facilitate in the fields of education and childcare. Her efforts have built on those which Richard Rahill implemented in the early 1980s as he considered how Enterprises could best recruit top scientists and engineers.

Richard, a father of four, recognized that childcare and schools would be two primary concerns for potential recruits. “How was this company supportive of education?” he remembers asking himself. He built partnerships with educators, administrators, and the local business community. He went to conferences, and he asked elementary and middle school principals if he could observe classrooms.

“I was absolutely astounded by the creativity of the teachers,” he recounts with awe. “I saw how they worked with different types of people, and I learned from administrators about the education process and its challenges.”

Over the past thirty-six years, Corning Enterprises has made investments in the school district and ensured that area families have access to affordable preschool and daycare.

“We basically started childcare for our employees,” Tom Tranter says. Corning Enterprises helped facilitate four daycare centers, each with an enrollment divided equally between Corning Inc. families and those from the larger Corning community.

“A Long, Long Process...”

Corning Enterprises has encountered naysayers in its years of development work. “There were a number of times when people thought we were in competition with them, and we just had to sit down and talk it out,” says Richard Rahill. “We had to be good listeners and build a sense of trust. It was, at times, a long, long process.” His time was well spent, however.

Today, Corning is the home of 200 independently owned businesses. “Each one started as someone’s entrepreneurial dream,” says Coleen Fabrizi. Corning Enterprises has facilitated many of these dreams, and, late last summer, it saved one from collapsing. A favorite diner on Market Street had received a last-minute eviction notice after fifty years of business. Donna Robbins, owner and operator of Donna’s Restaurant for thirty-three years, reported the news on her Facebook page. Corning Enterprises—and Amo Houghton—took note. For decades, the restaurant had been a favorite eatery of his.

“He came into my diner in 1985 to ask if he could make an announcement that he was running for Congress, and he just kept coming in,” Donna told The New York Times in 2004. Amo had also announced his retirement from Congress at Donna’s after serving nine congressional terms.

“Donna’s Restaurant is a Market Street institution that nobody else was going to save,” says Chris Sharkey. Corning Enterprises stepped forward to secure a new location for Donna’s on Market Street, less than a block away from its original spot.

On April 1 of this year, the same day that Donna’s Restaurant turned thirty-four, Dick Puccio retired from Marich Music, a business he had operated for over forty years (his son-in-law now runs the store, located on Market Street). Dick and his wife Marilyn first opened Marich on Denison Parkway just after they married—and just before the flood of 1972 hit.

Dick remembers a day when a man walked into the store and asked to buy a $300 cymbal he had hanging on the wall. The customer said to put it on his account. Dick said he preferred payment up front, and the man told him to write down his name and he’d send a check to the store later that day.

“What’s your name?” Dick asked.

“Amo Houghton,” the man replied. Turns out he was a drummer. He played in at least two bands, and the men became fast friends. Corning Inc. also became a faithful customer, renting sound equipment for events and meetings, and wireless microphones for museum programming.

“This town has been wonderful to me,” says Dick. When, twenty-five years ago, the Corning native was diagnosed with leukemia, people brought meals to his house for nine months. Growing up, Dick says, he wanted to get a job in a big city far away from home. And he did go to Los Angeles—for a time. “Those big places,” he reflects, “there’s a lot to do, and a lot of money to do it. Here, everybody knows everybody. Corning’s my home.”

It’s a sentiment shared by a man, Dick says, who “gives real meaning to the word ‘gentleman.’” Amo Houghton told The Leader in 2017, “I love this place. I totally identify with this community. Corning is a containable place. It’s not sprawled all over so you can’t put your arms around it.”

Through Corning Enterprises, Amo Houghton has been able to do just that—reach his company’s arms into and around the town that has held his family for five generations. By sustaining and developing Corning’s infrastructure, encouraging its preservationists and entrepreneurs, and uplifting its artisans, Amo and his team at Corning Enterprises have promoted Corning not only as a destination for artists, art lovers, and the arts, but as a hometown.