Corning Turns Inside OutJun 30, 2020 02:02PM ● By Karey Solomon
“We couldn’t have a better day for this!” says Corning Mayor Bill Boyland. Standing in the middle of Corning’s Market Street, where ordinarily he’d be blocking traffic, he flourished a large pair of ceremonial golden scissors, then used them to cut a wide red ribbon held by other business and city officials. “It’s time to come out and shop and eat and enjoy,” he proclaims. Traffic lights changed but he and the others were still unthreatened by cars. As of 11 a.m. June 12, and for at least the next seven weeks, downtown Market Street between Wall Street and Chestnut Street is closed to traffic.
It’s an experiment, allowing retail businesses and eateries to expand, spreading retail space and tables into the street to serve more customers while observing social distancing. One hour in, people were happily eating at outdoor tables, shopping, visiting with shopkeepers they’ve missed, jogging, sitting on benches and curbs—quickly adapting to the new ambiance.
“It’s happening all over the country; it’s the only way to get these businesses re-started,” says Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of Corning’s Gaffer District. “As the governor started talking about phases of reopening, I started the conversation with the city to see if it’s something we might be able to do. Then my team and I have been working behind the scenes.” The Corning City Council scheduled a special council meeting on June 9 via Zoom to consider the proposal. That evening, they voted it in. “And we’re very grateful,” Coleen says.
The trial period extends to August 1. It makes the street—apart from one middle emergency lane—a place for café seating and retail space, with barricades preventing vehicular access at each end of each block. Cross streets remain open to cars. The plan is to ensure everyone’s safety, convenience, and comfort. The Centerway parking garage is offering free parking during this time. Wheelchair-wide aisles near stores remain unobstructed. And as the inside moves outside, smoking on the street is banned. Bike racks owned by the Wineglass Marathon group were loaned to eateries as a way to secure their outdoor furniture overnight, creating defined outdoor seating areas as needed. Further north, where sidewalks are wider, restaurants and retailers will be able to move outdoors without requiring street closing. The benefits for visitors, businesses, and downtown residents are potentially enormous.
“At this time, our focus is all about getting our businesses open and creating a safe environment so our customers can come back and enjoy the downtown they love so much,” Coleen says. “The beautiful thing about this downtown is whether you are on the north side or here on Market street, we have businesses that are so excited to be welcoming back their beloved customers.”
On hearing of the city council’s decision, many eatery owners immediately visited restaurant supply outlets to order outdoor furniture. Some found pallets of supplies already loaded for their neighbors. A few chose awnings and café umbrellas; others are confident in their location on the shady side of the street.
Until the street space could be used, many businesses were having a very tough time as they tried to stay open while navigating a changing landscape of new rules.
“Our business has certainly suffered like all other businesses, and the ability to put tables out on the street in front of our restaurant is pretty significant to us,” says Ellen Lanahan, co-owner with her husband, Michael, of The Cellar restaurant at 21 West Market Street. “We will have to abide by six feet between tables. But what we have available inside is about 25 percent capacity. Better to have more guests dine and enjoy themselves.”
“This brings us closer to the possibility of the business itself maybe turning a profit at this point,” says Michael Lanahan. “With the stipulations and without the outdoor seating it’s not a sustainable business model.” The Lanahans are also particularly glad it’s now possible for their furloughed employees to return to work.
Michael Sorge of Sorge’s Restaurant at 68 West Market Street is the second generation of a business that opened nearly seventy years ago. The business weathered the flood of 1972—“We actually had very little damage and we had a great summer that year!”—as well as a devastating fire in late 2008 that shut the business down for sixteen months. Michael Sorge calls these past months, “less challenging than a fire” but acknowledges the uncertainty of things.
“The unknowns are...unknown,” he says. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us. But the street has come together, the merchants have come together, and I think it tells our customers we in the downtown area will do whatever it takes to show them we need them and want them. We’re willing to do that extra bit.”
“A lot of us said in the past it might be a good idea,” says David Shoemaker, one of the owners of Liquid Shoes Brewing at 26 East Market Street. David admits the past few months “haven’t been that bad,” for a brewery.
“Beer sales went up 40 percent. We were definitely a hot commodity, and I think it will help us get back to where we wanted to be faster. It won’t be what it was until we’re back to full capacity, but it will allow us to be closer to that full capacity mark. I think you’re going to see a very busy downtown Corning, as long as all businesses adhere to social distancing and allow patrons a way to feel comfortable and still enjoy their favorite bar or restaurant—or brewery.
“I also am hoping, not only from a personal standpoint, hoping more people will come down and walk Market Street and purchase from other retailers whether it be clothing or a service business,” he adds.
David is optimistic about this new approach, partly from natural optimism, and also because patrons have long told him they wanted to see this happen. “I wouldn’t mind seeing them do this every summer,” he says. “If this goes well it will show everyone who loves this idea it’s definitely something that could be done even without a pandemic. I’m not thanking the pandemic, but it could be something really good.”
He’s not the only one seeing a silver lining in the clouds that have hovered over eateries and businesses for 2020’s late winter and spring.
“We spent a lot of time fine-tuning parts of our business that would have been harder to find the time for,” Michael Lanahan says.
That included “fine-tuning some of the details on how our kitchen functions to make it more efficient than it already was,” adds Ellen. “And, growing as business owners.”
Barry Nicholson, who owns several buildings and three retail businesses, can look at the challenge of the past months from multiple perspectives. As an employer, during New York on Pause he spent time with his employees each week on Zoom calls. “I didn’t have a personal relationship with each employee but we had a need to stay in touch with people when they weren’t working,” Barry says. “I got to know employees, whether a high school student or a long-term full-timer.” He also spent a lot of time talking with his tenants.
When Market Street retailers had to close temporarily, it challenged everyone on this much-beloved thoroughfare. “There’s been a lot of consternation,” he continues. Some of his upper floor tenants were particularly unhappy, having chosen to live in an urban environment in part to enjoy the variety of amenities available downtown. The bottom line, he says, is much of the local economy depends on the success of the restaurants. “We have some truly outstanding local restaurants, far more than a small town like Corning might usually have. We want to support them and make sure they’re successful.”
Sean Lukasik, president of the Corning Area Business Alliance and owner of Creagent Marketing in Corning, lives, works, and has his business on Market Street. He’s always enjoyed the liveliness of living at the center of things and found little to celebrate in the quiet of the past ten weeks. Present at the ribbon cutting, he said happily of the re-opening, “It’s getting its vibrancy back.”
Not everyone knows yet how they’ll use an expanded footprint. Jean Gray, owner of Wooly Minded at 91 East Market Street, says it’s a “Great idea—I’m still considering options.”
Sister-and-brother team Nicole and Andrew Cleary, owners of Boomer’s Burrito Bar at 30 West Market Street, were among those seeing an immediate interest in outdoor seating. Within minutes of opening, they had customers enjoying an outdoor meal. “It’s more relaxed,” Andrew says. “I’m hoping because people will be walking instead of driving, they’ll discover and support a lot of businesses they might not have otherwise seen.” And, he notes, with return trips, a new approach might emerge, as tourists and locals might try a sort of progressive dinner. “You could have your drinks at one place, an appetizer somewhere else, then a main course and dessert at different places,” he suggests.
“None of us have ever experienced anything like this as business owners,” Mike Lanahan muses. “But we’re going to come back stronger. I think when we do get back to more of the new normal, we’ll really appreciate what we have and what we’re able to do.”