The “rebirth” of Lancaster village’s West Main Street has been anything but simple.
The vision to restore West Main to its glory of yesterdays gone by is sparking infighting within village circles and concern over federal grant money that is at stake.
The street thrived back in the 1950s and ’60s until a devastating fire destroyed half the block. During the urban renewal era a decade later, a huge complex was constructed there.
Last fall, part of the hulking Lancaster Village Partnership Complex at the end of West Main Street was torn down to clear a path to reopen the street, making it as it had been more than 40 years ago. A new street and a mix of development are envisioned as a magnet to revitalize the core business district.
The handful of merchants who have shops on West Main desperately want a fresh start for the struggling business district. But some officials worry that the village will make the same kind of mistake that was made 40 years ago.
“Once it’s in, it’s in,” Village Trustee William C. Schroeder said of plans to open up and rebuild a new West Main Street, running between Central Avenue and North Aurora Street. “Why have history repeat itself?”
The village’s Community Development Corporation and a Citizens’ Advisory Committee appointed by the village to help plan the redevelopment of the business district met last week.
But after the meeting, some questioned how the new West Main Street should be constructed. Others worried about $323,000 in federal grant money that the village could lose if it doesn’t meet a deadline.
Still others called for the village to delay the project and instead carefully scrutinize the plan in greater detail before moving forward.
In the midst of the wide-ranging debate was uncertainty about what prospective developers would find most viable to build in that area.
At the same time, the village is under pressure to put a shovel in the ground by mid-October to start reconstructing West Main Street in some form, or else it could lose the $323,000 in federal grant money funneled through the county.
Plus, village officials know they can no longer count on receiving any of the $250,000 in grant money that had been promised by former state Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, who resigned in January amid sexual harassment allegations.
“We feel now that it would be a tragedy to move ahead with the plan without further study,” said Richard Young, a member of the citizens’ panel, a former village and planning boards’ member, and founder of Performance Advantage, located at the end of West Main. “Go back to the drawing boards and come up with alternatives that will fit.”
The mounting pressure is substantial for a project that already has taken years to get moving and to secure government funding.
“There’s a gun to all of our heads,” Mayor Paul Maute said. “This is crunch time. We need to move forward and do the best for the community. If we lose that $323,000, shame on us. We already lost Gabryszak’s money. We need to get the best bang for our buck.”
Fueling further frustration is that bids on the construction of the West Main extension were opened by the village late last week and they came in higher than the village’s previously-approved bond issue of nearly $2 million for the project. The village may face the prospect of borrowing substantially more money than was anticipated.
A majority of village trustees have decided they want to seek developers’ input on what type of businesses would be best in the West Main block – whether it’s retail, commercial, residential or mixed use. The 10-acre parcel is owned by the Community Development Corp., which plans to put the property up for sale in July. Corporation officials said they have informally talked with Iskalo Development and developer Carl Paladino.
Young continued to hammer the Village Board about revitalization plans for that area.
“We have had five alternate plans for that area over the years because it didn’t fit,” he said. “We are concerned with some of the problems associated with the street, and blocking traffic.”
Construction on extending the street must begin by mid-October, or the project loses the $323,000 in federal grant money funneled through Erie County. As of last week, it remained unclear just how the street would be opened up – straight to North Aurora, or some other configuration.
Young wants an extension for the grant to buy time for a traffic study to be done, and also noted parking concerns. “West Main has been blocked since 1969. Think about it. What’s the hurry?” he said. “Parking is critical. If you don’t plan for parking, you’re sinking yourself.”
Trustee Kenneth O’Brien III was torn. “I don’t want to spend money foolishly, but I don’t want to throw it away, either,” he said.
Matt Walters, on the CDC’s board of directors, said developers already have indicated they want a road to be put in and a plan shown to them before they consider investing money.
“The county has told us this grant will be gone,” Walters said. “I don’t want the opportunity to build the wrong thing, but I don’t want to lose a quarter of a million dollars. We need to know where the road will go.”