In the Village of Medina’s re-energized business district, just west of the second widest point on the Erie Canal, there are few vacancies among the 19th and early 20th century Medina sandstone and brick buildings that occupy several blocks of Main Street.
Renovation projects of a long-shuttered, Civil War-era opera house and a 1930s movie theater are also in the works.
Medina is capitalizing on its historic downtown architecture under the leadership of a mayor who preaches the benefits of preservation and leads by example.
“Medina stands apart as a community that really has had a lot of success with revitalization of the business district, and I think it’s evident driving or walking through,” said Mayor Andrew Meier.
“It’s something you don’t see a whole lot of around Western New York, and New York State at large. There has been a long ethic of commitment to preservation here, and in the last five years the village really seems to have taken off.”
Meier, a 33-year-old Medina native, is playing a big role in tapping into the village’s history by taking on a $1.5 million, 15,000-square-feet redevelopment project.
The Shirt Factory Cafe he operates is in a building that began as a hotel in 1876 and was converted into a shirt factory in 1918 for high-end customers. Meier bought the tax-foreclosed building for $20,000 in 2005, a year after the factory relocated and not long after he graduated from Syracuse University Law School.
The cafe, with its tall ceilings and comfortable setting, has become a popular gathering spot. Maier’s law office is on the second floor, with stunning Douglas fir wainscoting. Two lofts are being completed this week, with nine boutique hotel rooms in the works.
Outside, the exposed brick and big steel beams that once enclosed the building’s boiler have been incorporated into an outdoor lounge and theater in the round.
“All the patina was here, all the imperfections on the walls,” Meier said. “People grind their fingers down to the bone to get finished looks like this.”
Meier is one of a number of modern-day trailblazers in Medina.
Avanti Pizza & Grill, which purchased a corner building several years ago to rehab into a pizza shop and Italian restaurant, was among the first.
“That was one of the tipping-point projects for the downtown business district,” Meier said. “It was a huge infusion of capital, and a signal for the business district that this is a place worth investing in.”
Medina has a cluster of manufacturers that employ from 50 to 700 people, which helped the village overcome the losses of its two biggest employers – first, H.J. Heinz Co., which departed in the 1960s, and then Fisher-Price, which left in the 1990s.
Downtown’s rebirth can be seen in Laura Gardner’s open and airy A Lilly & a Sparrow clothing and accessories store, outfitted with new fixtures, fans and a refinished wooden floor in what was previously an unadorned real estate office.
“I have a very successful business, and I am so happy at how Medina is doing,” said Gardner, who grew up there.
Cindy Robinson discovered a beautiful tin ceiling under a dropped ceiling when remodeling the space that now houses the English Rose Tea Shoppe.
Several years earlier, she rehabbed a storefront with tiled and wooden floors now operating under different ownership as Reigle’s Market on Main.
“I think it’s important to bring the buildings back to how they used to look, because, honestly, that’s what people are looking for,” said Robinson, who also is chairwoman of the Medina Business Association. Her husband, Jim, practices veterinary medicine in an 1860s farmhouse.
The variety of newer businesses and community fixtures – which include Della’s Chocolates, Case-Nic Cookies, the Book Shoppe, Rosenkrans Gift Shop & Pharmacy, Curvin’s News & Smoke Shop and Rock Paper Salon – give Medina its vibrant mix of retail destinations.
One of the newest is Paper Boys, an office supply store now housed in a 1908 red sandstone building. Fred Thurston, an architect from South Dakota, whose wife, Sherry, is from Medina, was introduced to the building while attending a field session in the village during the National Preservation Conference in October 2011.
Jason Wilson, director of operations at Preservation Buffalo Niagara, the host organization for the conference, praised Medina for its accomplishments.
“Medina is an excellent example of a small community reusing their historic assets and having that contribute to the revitalization of their downtown core,” Wilson said.
Meier said downtown’s impact also is changing people’s attitudes and perceptions about the community beyond the business district.
Mike Zambito, 30, is representative of young people who grew up in Medina, left for several years and returned to sink their roots.
After graduating the Culinary Institute of America, Zambito opened Zambristo, a fine-dining establishment that filled a downtown void. The French-trained chef with an Italian family background said he was surprised by how well the restaurant was received.
“We have a busy restaurant. We’re full most nights and days,” Zambito said.
A long-term project is Bent’s Opera House, which was named on Preservation League of New York State’s Seven to Save list earlier this year for threatened historic resources.
The 1864 Medina sandstone building – which may not have actually been an opera house – was last used in the 1950s by a men’s fraternal organization. Community members envision a $4 million restoration, in stages, to turn the three-story building into a community hall for special events.
There also are plans to create a multi-use venue in the former New Diana Theatre, which was opened by Warner Brothers in 1938 and later owned by Dipson Theatres before being repurposed as a restaurant and nightclub.
In recent years, a new roof, plumbing, sound system and lounge area in the former lobby have been installed.
A grand opening is planned for December, said Joseph Cardone, the Orleans County district attorney, whose father, Vincent Cardone, owns the building.
The theater, which once had 600 seats, is now set up for tables and chairs, but screening second-run films is part of the planned entertainment mix. The Diana Lounge, an upscale cocktail bar, is expected to be open on a daily basis.
There’s a real tangible momentum in Medina right now, and all signs are that it’s continuing,” Meier said. “There’s always new interest by people inside the community, and outside, who see what’s happening and want to be a part of it.”