Developer Greg O'Connell '64 is working to restore the village of Mount Morris to its former vitality by purchasing, renovating and then renting property on its Main Street to enterprising businesspeople.
When O'Connell began buying up village property, roughly 70 percent of the storefronts on Main Street were empty, said Harold Long, mayor of Mount Morris. "We had some businesses on Main Street that were in the 11th hour of being ready for the wrecking ball," he said.
According to Long, the village had been in decline for decades. Mounting competition from Rochester malls and chain retail stores forced small businesses to fold, leaving dilapidated storefronts behind. The village, which had been booming with small factories in the 1960s, also steadily began losing manufacturing jobs as the factories moved elsewhere.
Now, the village is gradually rediscovering its energy. Thus far, O'Connell has renovated at least 12 buildings on Main Street.
New businesses that have opened in O'Connell's properties include an Italian restaurant, two antique stores, a gift shop and a barbershop. Long said that a coffee shop, a deli and a bulk food store are slated to open soon.
"Greg is more than just a developer. He's a community architect," Long said. "He's helping our community to come back to life."
O'Connell has also collaborated with the village government to spruce up village parking lots and lighting and he plans to relocate an iconic fountain that was removed from Main Street in 1930 to the village park, Long said. The village has also offered grants to fledgling businesses to improve their facades and help cover start-up costs.
Jane Oakes, owner of soon-to-open Jane's Pantry, said that she received a grant from the village to open her bulk food store in one of O'Connell's buildings. She said that she hopes that the niche market her business occupies – locally produced food and penny candy – will insulate it from competition from larger stores like Wegmans.
Many in the community have been enlisted in O'Connell's cause. Bud Howe, manager of a Main Street thrift store, said that although his building is not one of O'Connell's, he has worked with O'Connell to develop initiatives to advertise Mount Morris' businesses.
Last year, O'Connell helped facilitate a collaborative project that paired Geneseo communication students with business owners to develop marketing strategies and business plans.
Senior Lauren Aman, who interned for O'Connell, said now that most of the renovating process is complete, the next step is to help the new businesses thrive.
"I get choked up," said Linda Grey, who helps out at Treasure Alley, an antique store that leases one of O'Connell's buildings. "He got the town interested again in realizing the potential here. He gave us that spark of life that we needed."
O'Connell is no stranger to turning weary communities into vibrant hubs for business. O'Connell is most famous for his work in Red Hook, Brooklyn where he began buying up unwanted, sagging warehouses that he subsequently renovated and leased to businesses. According to a recent New York Times article, O'Connell's buildings in Red Hook now house more than 150 small businesses.