NIAGARA FALLS – When Tom Lowe and Matt Green think of Main Street, they don’t see the image of a ghost town. They see excited residents, busy stores and a bustling commercial strip.
That vision exists only in the faded photographs of past generations – but Lowe and Green are determined to resurrect it for their own.
“I’m 22, and I have friends who have no idea what was there,” said Green, a University at Buffalo student in the School of Architecture and Planning. “I see what it was like, and I see what it is now.”
That latter reality – what it is now – is perhaps the main obstacle to reinvigorating a shopping district that in recent decades has been left for dead.
But Green, a Niagara Falls native, and a group of other young city residents see the vacant buildings as a “blank canvas” upon which to build a new identity. They’re asking others to join them in the task.
In conjunction with Lowe and the Niagara University community outreach office – recently relocated to lower Main Street – Green and other activists will host a Main Street Symposium from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
The event, hosted at the Rapids Theatre, 1711 Main St., and other Main Street stops, is free and open to the public and will serve as a kind of brainstorming session for city residents, business owners and other stakeholders.
To highlight the symposium, the activists are bringing in two big names in urban planning to give their thoughts on what ails Main Street and how it might be fixed.
Chuck D’Aprix, who heads a Washington, D.C., economic-development firm, will present strategies for long-term economic development. He previously led development efforts in Massachusetts and California. He is known for his emphasis on building and nurturing entrepreneurs as a way to revitalize downtown commercial districts.
Mike Lydon, who is nationally known for his unconventional approach to urban planning through citizen activism, will speak about short-term development strategies.
Frustration has been building of late among area business associations because much of Main Street’s commercial real estate sits undeveloped in the hands of a few investors.
That’s what makes the short-term solutions especially appealing, said Lowe, program coordinator for the ReNU Niagara outreach program.
Lydon – in his popular “Tactical Urbanism” plan – encourages residents to create community gardens, bike paths and other quality-of life improvements as a way of building enthusiasm for a place largely devoid of real investment.
Green believes that those small steps – driven by community activists, not government leaders – will spur more long-term investment that Main Street desperately needs.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to create hope,” Green said. “It just takes a lot of people out there doing something to create a fuller community, and that momentum creates change.”
Green and Lowe know the magnitude of the task at hand, and they aren’t promising any quick fixes for a Main Street lined with vacant buildings and blighted lots.
But they believe that more citizen involvement – coupled with investments such as the Rapids Theatre project, plans to remove the Robert Moses Parkway and the historic character of Main Street’s buildings – is the logical place to start.
“Call it naïve optimism,” Lowe said, “but we see a real challenge there, a real unique opportunity.”
Community activists from across the region will give workshops on historic preservation and park development, and Niagara Falls Community Development Director Seth A. Piccirillo will talk about strategies for salvaging vacant buildings.
But the most important part of the symposium will be informal discussions that take place among residents, businesspeople and officials, Green said.
“There’s community-building in all this,” he said. “There are people coming together, neighbors, who normally wouldn’t talk to each other. If you show them what they are capable of doing, then they might just start doing it.”
For more about the symposium, and to RSVP, visit main streetsymposium2013.weebly .com.