Development of Downtown Watertown

Aerial view of downtown Watertown.

BY: Craig Fox
Community and business leaders believe that downtown’s time has finally come.

                Everything is coming together at the same time. All the hard work is about to pay off. Confidence is high.

                Work should begin this spring on many of the projects involved in the city’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative program. Considered transformational, they are expected to breathe new life into downtown and change the city’s central business district forever.

The key current projects include:

  • A new $16 million Watertown Family Y aquatics and wellness center;
  • Turning the Masonic Temple into a performing arts center;
  • Continued work on the historic Lincoln Building.
  • Creating market-rate apartments on Court Street;
  • A Jefferson Community College TechSpace Center;
  • Improvements to historic Paddock Arcade and upgrading five upper-floor apartments;
  • Replacing the roof and completing other improvements at the Jefferson County Historical Museum.
  • More than $2 million in street and public projects.

                That equates to an influx of about $39 million in private and public investment, one of the largest amounts in downtown’s history.

                Over the years, Reginald J. Schweitzer, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown Inc., remembered other times when there were high hopes for downtown.

                “This time, I really feel like it’s going to happen,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re finally going to see the fruits of our labor.”

                Neighbors, a local housing organization with 250 units downtown, has already played a key role in downtown’s resurgence.

                Considered an important economic development boon for the community, Neighbors completed a $15 million project in 2017 to renovate four low-income senior citizen housing buildings in the city’s central business district and a fifth on nearby Washington Street.

                While the city proceeded with its downtown efforts, getting people to live there became a priority, with an emphasis on market-rate apartments.

                The goal is get to people to live downtown, work downtown and then shop downtown, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said. The more restaurants, bars and “really unique” and “high-end retail” businesses, the more people will want to head down to the city’s business district, he said.

                Local businessman Stephen J. Bradley, who has owned Abbey Carpet for 29 years, agrees – housing is the way to make downtown a vibrant place to shop and eat.

                Using a $990,000 Restore NY grant, Mr. Bradley is turning the former Smith Restaurant Supply at 170 Court St. into an events facility that would accommodate as many as 700 people for weddings, special events and parties.

                He believes an events center will fit well into the downtown business landscape.

                The second floor – not occupied in decades – also will be transformed into six market rate apartments. He’s also completing eight market rate upper-floor apartments in the nearby Dr. Guitar building at 152 Court St.

                The cost of the two projects will be between $1.5 million and $2 million, with completion later this year.

                The influx of people downtown is already happening, Mr. Bradley said.

                A retirement-age couple is selling their house in Copenhagen and moving into a loft apartment in his Abbey Carpet building because they heard about what’s happening downtown, he said.

                There’s already been a series of shops, restaurants and bars that have opened downtown in recent years. A yoga studio, specialty eyewear shop, wine bar and new age coffee cafe have been downtown additions in and around Public Square.

                In June, Cornerstone Eatery, which offers new salads and sandwiches for the lunch crowd, opened in the former Subway on Public Square. It joined Spokes Craft Beer & Tapas, at 81 Public Square, and Boots Brewing Co.

                In a storefront in the historic Lincoln Building, Boots Brewing Co. became downtown’s first micro-brewery when its doors opened last year.

                With a maximum occupancy for 70 patrons, Boots Brewing is set up like a wine tasting room with an upstairs tap room. The beer is brewed in the basement. Since the beers taps began running six months ago, owner and brew master Daniel Daugherty, has produced 60 barrels and 20 kinds of beer.

                He saw what downtown could be when he chose the historic landmark on Public Square.

                “Downtown was the unmodeled clay,” he said.

                And now downtown is about to reach that potential, the city firefighter said. The Y project will play a big role, said local developer Brian H. Murray, who’s redeveloping the Lincoln Building and owns a number of downtown properties.

                He insisted that the Y’s proposed aquatics project can have the biggest economic impact on downtown than any other development during the past 20 years.

                “It hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves,” Mr. Murray said.

                The aquatics center would bring hundreds of people into downtown on a daily basis, not only from Watertown but from throughout the region, he said. Last month, the Y was awarded $2.133 million in state Consolidated Funding Application money that would go toward the 56,000- to 70,000-square-foot aquatics/racquet sport and wellness center project, which would be built at the 2.7-acre site of two former medical office buildings on Clinton Street.

                He believes the Y project is so crucial that any DRI funding that doesn’t get spent on a project should be diverted to the aquatics center.

                Y officials are still working on a strategy to obtain more funding to pay for the remaining costs for the project, through other public sources and private foundations, CEO Denise K. Young said,

                Mr. Murray, one of the biggest players in the downtown revitalization, has invested about $20 million – mostly with his own money – in acquiring downtown property and completing upgrades to his buildings.

                So far, he’s invested about $2.6 million in redeveloping the Lincoln Building, where Boots and three other businesses have opened in storefronts.

                He obtained $825,000 in DRI money to renovate space on its third and fourth floors into a Co-working Innovation Center, where entrepreneurs and artists can share space, offices, a conference center and kitchenette.

                He also plans to use $1,243,500 to make facade improvements to a series of buildings on Franklin Street to spur businesses to move into that area.

                He expects to start work on those projects later this year.

                The Masonic Temple is another key project for the downtown resurgence. Owners Augusta Withington and Robert J. Campany, who co-own Fourth Coast Inc., a renewable energy company in Clayton, are credited with saving the historic 102-year-old building from demolition.

                Work will resume this spring on repairing the crumbling exterior, but it will take a couple of more years to complete the $6 million project, Mr. Campany said.

                “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.

                When it’s done, the building will feature a restaurant or catering company in the basement that would fit in well with the second-floor performing arts center, he said.

                So how did downtown get to this point?

                It’s been a long road. With highs and lows. And some detours along the way.

                Shops and businesses closed after the Salmon Run Mall opened in 1986. There were more downtown storefronts empty than full. Downtown’s infrastructure was worn out. People had little reason to go downtown.

                “Downtown was definitely in the decline,” Mr. Schweitzer said.

                In 2008, the $7.4 million reconstruction and beautification of Public Square finally was completed after two years. The enhancement included a road reconfiguration and cosmetic upgrades such as landscaping, improving crosswalks, running new electrical lines, adding benches, planting trees and about 30 decorative streetlights.

                It was supposed to urge interest in downtown. But the recession hit and the investments didn’t come, said Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community development director.

                The $10 million restoration of the former YWCA building, now called the Franklin Building, and redevelopment of the iconic Woolworth Building helped jump-start downtown’s comeback, though, he said.

                Over the years, Neighbors and the Watertown Local Development Corp. worked together on helping downtown property owners spruce up their facades. The local development corporation, also known as the Watertown Trust, provided more than $912,000 to fix up more than 15 properties during that time.

                It helped, Mr. Lumbis said. Five more buildings are getting upgrades now. The Crystal Restaurant is expected to be getting funding under the next round.

                “The appearance of downtown is important,” he said.

                In 2016, the city applied for DRI for the first time. Watertown’s application was denied. But getting people excited and talking about downtown helped in its resurgence, Mr. Lumbis said.

                “You could see the signs of investment and excitement,” he said.

                But Mr. Murray believes a big piece of the resurgence began more than a year ago. He saw signs of it when about 20 big and small businesses signed leases and moved into his downtown properties.

                In her six years in the Paddock Arcade, Monika Astanasova, owner of the Europe Cakes bakery, has observed the downtown upswing.

                “It helps everyone,” she said.

The downtown merchant is optimistic downtown will only continue to grow.