After spending four years earning a bachelor's degree in education from Geneseo, Greg O'Connell '64 left the valley and its sunsets behind for New York City, never expecting to return to the locale to revitalize nearby Mount Morris.
Like O'Connell, many college graduates seek to start their careers in metropolitan cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. O'Connell, originally from Queens, N.Y. graduated from Geneseo said he never dreamed he would come back. Convinced that he was going to be a police officer and part-time teacher, he settled in the Big Apple and began his career fighting crime in areas like Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cut to the present day, and you can find O'Connell collaborating with Geneseo students, Mount Morris entrepreneurs, Livingston County officials and a variety of artists. So what happened? Why did O'Connell come back to Small Town, N.Y.? He said, "It's the difference between the principle and the practice: I knew I could make a difference, so I did."
While working as a police officer, O'Connell said he realized his interest in older buildings. "I started imagining how the historic brownstones could be readapted," he said. "I began seeing their potential for residential, commercial or industrial purposes." He decided to leave his work as an officer and teacher in order to pursue what would become one of his greatest passions: development.
O'Connell began buying and remodeling buildings in a rundown neighborhood of Brooklyn called Red Hook. Eventually, he began to attract the attention of residents, businessmen and other developers who he said were eager to collaborate on projects. After meeting success in Red Hook, O'Connell said he decided that his work didn't have to be restricted to Brooklyn. He returned to Mount Morris and asked: "What can we do to elevate this town?"
That simple question sparked an entire Main Street makeover. O'Connell said he targeted the vacant buildings and empty stores because he "wanted to get rid of the depressed, unusable space and make it into successful, beneficial businesses." To do so, he utilized a stimulus package including state grants, contacts with the business and art departments at Geneseo and the assistance of local entrepreneurs. With this help, O'Connell established a variety of new businesses on the Mount Morris Main Street including a barbershop, an event planning office, an Italian restaurant, a crafts supply house, a bakery and a few antique dealers.
"As more people become interested in Mount Morris, the businesses grow, which in turn offers more job opportunities for both local residents and college students," O'Connell said. "The more employment is raised, the better the quality of life is for those living in Mount Morris, and the more appealing it is for outsiders to take interest in Main Street." So how does he expect to sustain these improvements? "We created the position of Main Street manager," he said. "They are responsible for managing all the activity occurring on Main Street to ensure that our ideals and goals are continued."
It seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, especially because O'Connell encourages Geneseo students to find purpose in the idea of promoting a small town. "This is the time for America to go back to the basics, and really take part in a small town community to make a difference."
O'Connell suggested that students look into taking courses in real estate and communications to broaden their horizons. Additionally, he encouraged students to take advantage of their professors and go to them with creative ideas on improving the community. "See if you can apply what you're learning in the classroom to local businesses, and then challenge yourself to research what they really need."
O'Connell's ultimate message to Geneseo students: "You can't live in a little bubble these days. You can make a difference, but whether you will is up to you. No matter what field you're interested in, as you meander through life, you need to make that decision."