With a greatly revitalized State Street around the corner, new hotels and restaurants open for business nearby and a casino under construction less than a mile away, the merchants of Jay Street are hoping to get more people to spend time on their street and money in their shops.
The pedestrian-only stretch between State and Franklin streets already sees its fair share of special events, and has a built-in draw with independent businesses offering products and services not easily found elsewhere.
It also has a number of vacant storefronts, some of them in need of repair, and a lack of pedestrian traffic during quiet periods.
To address the second problem, cross-promotion efforts are underway.
Richard Mare, president of the Jay Street Business Association, said the association is trying to work more closely with other organizations and agencies. It is preparing the Jay Street Sunday Market for another season of Sundays, attempting to get people who are shopping at the Schenectady Greenmarket to walk a few hundred feet and check out Jay Street.
The Sunday Market is an open-air market for collectibles, antiques and jewelry, with basic “garage sale” items not allowed, Mare said.
“We’ve had a lot more interest in the market from people that are more mainstream,” he said. “That should help bring awareness.”
Greenmarket manager Jennifer Jennings said the Greenmarket and the Sunday Market do not work together despite their proximity, though the Greenmarket might be interested in collaboration in the future.
“It’s been two entirely different things up to this point,” she said.
The Jay Street Business Association is also working with Schenectady County, which promotes several downtown events each year, to boost the profile of Jay Street during these events.
County spokesman Joe McQueen said Jason Lecuyer, who took over as the county’s director of special events in September, is taking the lead on this, “really working to develop more events on site.”
Among the existing events and promotions that include Jay Street are Summer Night, Jazz on Jay, the Kids Arts Festival and the American Cancer Society’s Paint the Town Purple, McQueen said.
Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, said one thing helping to get more people on Jay Street is its position between Proctors and the cluster of restaurants north of City Hall, many of them new in recent years — Jay Street is a natural pathway between the two areas. For that reason, on Wednesday the Metroplex board approved funding to improve the pedestrian crossing at Jay and Franklin streets, the north end of the pedestrian mall.
The work will be done in May and June.
Also pitching in is the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp., which works to beautify the streetscape with hanging flower baskets, trash removal and sidewalk cleaning, plus snow management in severe winters.
Executive Director Jim Salengo said the work DSIC does on Jay is part of its mission throughout downtown — beautification and other supplemental services.
“We try to make it an attractive destination for people,” he said. “It’s a great little compact street full of independent merchants.”
PLACE IN THE HEART
Many people like or love Jay Street, particularly those who run businesses there.
Maryann May, who has operated Lennon’s Irish Shop since 2007, said running a business downtown is steeped in meaning for her.
“I grew up in Schenectady, so I can remember as a kid my parents taking me down here,” she said. That was in the 1960s, when the downtown was full of life day and night. That was of course followed by a pronounced decline that anyone who spent time downtown in the 1990s will remember.
“Let’s face it, there was nothing down there,” May said of downtown. “I see a comeback and I’m thrilled about that. It’s a personal thing.”
Jay Street is smaller and — with no cars — quieter than State Street, which is appropriate for its collection of shops.
“I like the whole feel of the street, the diversity,” May said. “It’s just got a nice variety. … People who come into town for weddings or business meetings, they come into my shop and say this is a great little street, they love the atmosphere of it.”
She spoke highly of Lecuyer’s efforts to get more feet on the ground there.
“He has definitely added more to Jay Street so all of the activity isn’t just on State Street.”
One of the newest Jay Street merchants is Tammie Fowler, owner of WET Beauty Lounge, a skin care salon (WET stands for waxing, eyelashes, tanning).
She’s built her client list in her year-and-a-half on Jay Street and likes the vibe there. “I’m very impressed with the energy they’ve put back into it.”
Fowler is another area native who grew up shopping in downtown Schenectady and wearing jeans from Rudnick’s. She came back from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to visit a friend and was struck by what she saw during a Jazz on Jay event.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s so busy,’ ” she recalled.
“I love it,” she said. “I’d love to see more boutiques. I love that there’s a wine bar now.”
Hermie’s Music moved down the State Street hill to be part of the Jay Street scene, store manager James Felter said.
“There was a community, there were people shopping,” he recalled.
The new store is not nearly as large as the old location in the Hamilton Hill/Vale neighborhood, he said, so “We kind of had to pare down a lot of things.”
Hermie’s benefits now from pedestrian traffic and events like Jazz on Jay, and has retained its customer base of people who want to buy musical instruments or need to get them repaired.
“It was a good move,” Felter said.
All of the people who spoke to The Gazette about Jay Street described it as a special place, but most also wished there were more retailers there — seven of 26 storefronts currently stand vacant. However special Jay Street is, it is not immune to the stresses that have squeezed small independent merchants in upstate New York cities and downtowns everywhere.
Two owners who each own two vacant storefronts say they’d like to rent, but not to just anybody.
Attorney Rick Killeen, who has a second-floor law office above Jay Street, owns storefronts wrapping from the south end of Jay Street onto State Street. Two on Jay Street are vacant.
“Most of my tenants have been in here a while,” he said. “I never lease to anybody who doesn’t have a business plan or hasn’t been in business before. I never lease on a month-to-month basis.”
But Killeen said there may be some movement soon.
“I have people that are interested and I’m trying to work with them to get them in a position to do that,” he said.
Killeen’s long-held opinion is that there needs to be an overall strategy for boosting Jay Street, and downtown as a whole — a discussion of what types of merchants should be here, then a targeted attempt to recruit them.
He said the revitalized State Street and the future casino are important pieces of the solution.
“I always thought Jay Street needed State Street to come around. Now that it has,” there are more people downtown, Killeen said.
“There’s a lot more street traffic now than there was then. That’s positive.
“If you’re going to take Jay Street to the next level, there needs to a coordinated effort.”
Embarek Mesbahi owns and is currently offering for sale 138-142 Jay St., a three-storefront building that has two vacant spaces and the Promenade Art Gallery, which he operates to sell art created by his neighbor in Niskayuna, sculptor Robert Blood.
He said he’s turned away a number of prospective renters because they would not add anything to the community, but he would be willing to rent to the right person.
“If the right place comes in that I think it’s a big addition to the downtown, of course,” he said.
Mesbahi said he doesn’t feel Jay Street is reaching its potential and doesn’t feel officials are doing enough to push it along.
“Looking at that street. I see the main artery,” he said. “It’s completely deserted when it should be alive. Pedestrians are what make the downtown. It’s a treasure that’s been asleep.”
Mesbahi bought his building on Jay Street more than a decade ago with big plans for a jazz club but eventually gave up when he felt he wasn’t getting support from the city or the local development agencies.
“Nobody approached me,” he said. “For me, it’s sad.”
Gillen disagreed, both about Jay Street in general and Mesbahi specifically, saying Metroplex has helped many property owners with storefront improvements. He said Metroplex offered a matching grant to help renovate Mesbahi’s building facade and even commissioned an architectural drawing in 2012 of what the new appearance might be. He emailed that rendering to The Gazette, and it is recognizable as a modernized version of what now exists at 138-142 Jay St., with smoother lines.
“We believe the exterior of the building needs work and the building fails to attract the interest it should attract given the existing condition of the exterior,” Gillen said. “We think an important first step in leasing this space is a major upgrade to the building’s exterior and we stand ready to assist.”
The next step
Mare, the Jay Street Business Association president, operates Downtown Designs, from which he sells vintage clothing and jewelry, and creates custom bridal gowns, window treatments, upholstery and slipcovers. He’s been on Jay Street for eight years and has been association president for three. He recently moved across Jay Street to triple his space and gain more room for his fabrication work.
The task now, he said, is to tie together the potential of Jay Street with the new opportunities available to it and move forward.
“We need to work at it as a group,” Mare said.
“We need to get all of the spaces filled with retail,” he said, adding: “People need to stay after dark.”
For his own part in this, Mare will be using his new location as an event space once he completes renovations, bringing people onto Jay Street with movie nights, themed parties and workshops.
“It’s a great street overall,” he said.
Reach business editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.