UTICA — With big plans for the U-District of Utica and Bagg’s Square, area business owners have shared their thoughts and visions for the future.
Earlier this month, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said in his state of the county address that tourism would be key to Utica’s revitalization, with further development of the U-District surrounding the Adirondack Bank Center, with emphasis on security, lighting, parking and landscaping.
Local business owners in the Bagg’s Square area are thrilled, but have offered their thoughts on what needs to be considered moving forward.
Howard Potter co-owns A&P Master Images with his wife Amanda, who started the business in their home 19 years ago. A&P Master Images offers its clientele graphic design, printing, embroidery, vinyl and other services ranging from uniform embroidery for the fire department to vinyl decals for businesses and municipalities.
“We started our business during the mortgage crisis, and we were very lucky to grow even then,” he said. “And we continue to grow by leaps and bounds.”
The Water Street studio has housed A&P Master Images for 10 years, but the building sat vacant for years before the Potters moved their business there.
“This location was never considered prime real estate at the time,” Potter said. “And this area has seen a lot of development. There is a lot of interest in the properties around us. Utica Coffee just purchased building space across from us and did an incredible restoration of the building. So there is a lot of interest and development going on.
Potter said when Oneida County and New York State invested in the Adirondack Bank Center, it started so much in Utica. “The Aud kick-started the heartbeat of entertainment in our city and helped bring people in from out of town,” he said. “It creates a draw. When looking to buy a home, the third thing on the list that people look for is entertainment. Between the Aud and the Nexus Center, there are approximately 500,000 expected visitors to Utica per year.
And with so many people coming to Utica, everyone benefits, Potter said — from restaurants feeding visitors to malls opening doors, all bringing in sales tax to benefit the city.
One such Bagg’s Square restaurant is Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, located on Liberty Street.
According to Mark Mojave, owner of Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, the building was built in the 1840s and was an extension of the Bachelor’s Seed Store. Harry Gerber and his son, Leo, decided to quit gardening and take up moonlighting when prohibition hit.
“They saw there was more money to be made in alcohol than in gardening supplies,” Mojave said. “So the seed store became a speakeasy. And when prohibition ended in 1933, it became Gerber’s Tavern.
Gerber’s Tavern operated until 1976 when Leo “…turned the key and walked away”, as Mojave put it. After that, the building sat unused until it reopened in 2013 after a major restoration project returned the original bar to its former glory, complete with original furnishings and decorations.
“There’s a proud history here that goes back to investment and involvement in the city of Utica in its oldest neighborhood,” Mojave said.
Mojave admitted it was difficult to manage Gerber’s during the construction of the freeway project last year.
“There was a 20ft trench right outside my front door,” he said. “But I still felt it was well worth the investment. And I saw the benefit of that.
Gerber once had a state highway six feet from his front door and was not pedestrian friendly at all – something he deeply concerned when people walked alongside traffic.
“I was seeing people walking down the street from the hockey game, and they had to walk down the shoulder of the freeway,” Mojave said. “I’ve never been comfortable with it.”
Since then Gerber’s has a sidewalk and walking paths along it and it’s a difference day and night.
“When I see people walking around neighborhoods with dogs, that’s a good sign for me,” Mojave said. “For visitors and families, this quality of life is important. They feel safe and comfortable. It bodes well.
Mojave said he has seen investments made in the city, but wants to make sure things are done right.
“I know change is hard,” Mojave said. “But it’s exciting and exhilarating. I’m a former Utica Urban and Economic Development Commissioner, and I’ve always loved [Bagg’s Square] and I’ve always believed in downtown.
Mojave felt that projections of the number of people who will be attracted to the new Nexus Center are underestimated.
“It may not be a problem today, but we have to ask ourselves how pedestrians and vehicles will interact in the near future and where they will interact,” he said. “We see the vehicles driving through the streets of our city, and even if we don’t see the pedestrians, they are coming. It is the community’s responsibility to move forward and minimize friction between vehicles and pedestrians.
As part of this pedestrian-vehicle coexistence, Potter said more Department of Public Works employees are needed to improve the city.
“When you look at the city, the only thing we miss are the DPW workers,” Potter said. “When you look at the landscape and the type of weather we face and talk about getting people into the city safely, we should consider adding DPW workers.”
Potter said the development of the Nexus Center and Aud has brought a sense of pride back to the town of Utica and creates a family environment. And to make sure that can happen, “…the roads must be clear and there must be a place to park.”
From what he heard, Potter said the staging area behind A&P Master Images would be turned into a parking lot, giving people easier access to the area around it for pedestrian traffic.
Another thing Potter is interested in is the walkable bridge at Harbor Point. “It has been proposed and would have a pedestrian and bicycle bridge to the Nexus Center,” he said. “The only issue I see is whether it will be safe, so people don’t have to walk down the street because of the snowbanks. If we as a city can develop a safer, cleaner path from one side of the bridge to the other to these entertainment areas, it will free up parking and be a positive reinforcement.
Mojave said the walk is not a new concept, but one that evolved and grew in the city of Utica.
“It’s an amazing time in the city of Utica and the area…I think the future, with the Nexus later this year and the hospital next year, and more, I think ‘he’s shaping the future of this community,’ Mojave said.
Mojave said there’s nothing major in store for Gerber’s Tavern except for a revamped menu offering a full range of dishes.
“We plan to expand our food options in the near future,” he said. “We had been closed during the pandemic for 19 months, and I think we will continue to grow. And we will grow again once we offer a full menu. Because right now people want to feel normal again, and I think one way to feel normal is to come sit down, have a beer, and have a chat. It allows us to reconnect.
As part of the opening, Marcus Corasanti was hired as a full-time bar manager. “He did a great job digging in and carried the day to day weight,” Mojave said. “To grow a business, it is essential to have the right people in the right place.”
Mojave added that Gerber’s is currently hiring staff for several positions and encouraged people to call and inquire.
At A&P Master Images, there are plans to build a new building right next to the Water Street building measuring 2,200 square feet and totaling around $350,000. The new building would serve as a studio for vinyl graphics and sublimation and would provide more space compared to the current workspace.
Either way, both companies plan to stick around as long as possible and be part of Utica’s growing history.
“It’s an exciting time in Utica,” Mojave said.
For more information about A&P, visit masteryourimage.com or call 315-793-1934
For more information about Gerber’s 1933 Tavern, visit” www.gerbers1933tavern.com or call 315-534-4835.