Dedicated longtime members of the Mont Pleasant Neighborhood Association have formed a poor man’s version of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority to breathe life back into Crane Street.
The business corridor once was bustling, but fell into disrepair as store after store closed. Garbage blew freely down the street, weeds overtook garden squares and city workers began to cover the windows of vacant buildings with plywood.
Now, vacant buildings are being renovated, new stores are opening and flowers are sprouting in newly cleared gardens.
It did not happen quickly or easily. Mont Pleasant residents started small, painting hydrants. Then they expanded to beautification efforts along the business corridor of Crane Street, following the Metroplex model of cleaning up to attract new businesses and customers.
They slowly roped in their neighbors, but even now the work is mostly shouldered by a few. Sharron-Linn Schmidt is single-handedy mulching and planting flowers among the small trees in the sidewalk gardens. She recruits children to help.
“Last year, I had community kids who just loved to follow me with the wagon and water the flowers,” she said.
Other neighbors helped organize events to bring more customers to the area. Now, there’s a health fair, a neighborhood-wide garage sale and customer-appreciation fair, and a bike rescue clinic will set up on Crane Street for a day.
“It brings people in,” Schmidt said,
But it has another effect, too.
“You know your neighbor,” she said.
And that’s who is coming to Crane Street now.
There are thousands of residents within walking distance of the business corridor — far more than downtown. Slowly, more and more of them have ventured to Crane Street, and that has helped businesses get started.
It’s not perfect yet. At Mr. Meyer’s Bakery, clerk Margie Aini said many customers fled over the years.
“People are scared of the black people in this neighborhood,” she said. “I’m telling it how it is: They come here and tell me, ‘Oh, I’m scared.’ ”
But those customers are being replaced, albeit slowly, by residents.
“These people are very nice to me. I like everybody here,” she said.
She knows some customers so well that she trusts them when they ask if they could buy a loaf of bread today but pay her Friday.
“We know them, we say yeah,” she said. “How many places do that anymore?”
But there aren’t enough new customers yet.
“The store itself is dead,” she said, adding that the bakery stays afloat on orders for deliveries to other areas.
She said the lack of customers has hurt other businesses, too. The diner across the street has gone through owner after owner, none of whom could keep it open. It is about to reopen again with a new owner, but she doesn’t think things have changed enough to support it.
“Nobody comes,” she said. “The food was good, too. All of them had good food.”
New store owners, though, see potential.
“This has more foot traffic than State Street. You can make a lot of money,” said Deodat Deonarine, who is renovating a once-vacant building on Crane Street with plans to open the Exit Bar and Lounge, where he will run dance parties.
He has an online radio show and had looked for locations to do his show live.
“I struck gold,” he said of his building on Crane Street.
He’s not worried about attracting customers. They’re already there, walking down the street, he said.
He’s also hoping other business owners buy the vacant buildings around him — even if they compete with him.
“I want to draw them here,” he said. “They’ll want to compete with me.”
And that will bring more customers to bar-hop, he said.
A similar strategy brought many new bars and restaurants to downtown Schenectady. Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen called that the linchpin to economic development because it drew more foot traffic to the area, making it possible for other businesses to succeed.
Other new businesses preparing to open include a tattoo parlor and a Guyanese dress store. But residents aren’t resting on their laurels.
Garry Thiemann, vice president of the new Crane Street Merchants Association, is starting to call city code enforcement officials to address problems at properties around his Key & Lock store. He also paints event announcements on his front window and runs a community bulletin board inside his store.
Schmidt put out “butt cans” for smokers and mobilized business owners to encourage their use.
“We yell at people,” he said. “It works.”
He’s been open on Crane Street for two years and said business is picking up.
“We’re seeing more and more people out on the street. They’re starting to not be afraid,” he said. “That’s why these businesses are starting to do a lot better, because people are coming out.”
But the business corridor still is about half-vacant, and many businesses are surrounded by empty storefronts on all sides. They’ve run surveys of residents to find out what stores they would use and interviewed some store owners when they closed to find out what went wrong.
Using that data, they have developed a list of businesses they want. They are actively recruiting now, announcing their list and asking everyone to spread the word. The list includes a veterinarian; a dentist, doctor or medical clinic; an accountant; a grocery store; a breakfast eatery and small manufacturing.
That’s just the top of the list.
“We could use a restaurant/diner, a hardware store, a florist,” she added, listing businesses that have closed down. “We’re hoping to get some of these businesses back, but you really have to cater to the ethnic communities.”
She acknowledged those businesses might have difficulty succeeding if they failed before, but she said things have changed.
“It was indicative of what was happening in the neighborhood,” she said of the closures. “Buildings are being rehabbed [now]. Buildings are coming down. And I do know people who don’t have cars do need services.”
As they recruit owners for the businesses they want, they’re also fighting proposals they don’t want.
“We’ve been to the zoning meetings and objected to more convenience stores coming in,” she said.
It’s a lot of work, trying to create a vibrant business corridor, but Thiemann said it’s not only worth it, but it’s essential.
“No matter where you go, there’s always going to be something, gangs, drugs,” he said. “You’ve just got to make the best of it.”