Utica Two Years Later: A City In Transition

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Two years ago today, I clicked “publish” on a blog about a quietly optimistic city in Central New York.  Little did I know, this simple action would change my life forever, starting me on a journey across this state exploring communities that, just like Utica, are fighting hard every day to change the conversation from one of regret to one of progress.

With all this exploring, I always find myself coming back to where it all began, on the streets of Utica, which I visit several times each month, and have consistently over the last two years.  Backed with a new bag of knowledge about what makes cities like Utica thrive, and host of examples of communities all over the state that are at some point along the line of urban transition, I continue to explore this gem of Central New York.  Recently, I took some trips around Utica to visit some of the thriving young businesses that have appeared in downtown since my first blog launched.  These are what I have started to call the “second wave” of downtown establishments that are really galvanizing the idea of Utica’s comeback.

The thINCubator

OK, so it’s not quite a business… but it has the potential to be a vital source of job creation and maximization of business resources and talent in the area.  I walked in the door and was instantly overcome with a sense of awe and inspiration.  The interior has all the amenities of a creative, fun and resourceful workplace, but the industrial skeleton immediately brings you back to a “let’s get this done” approach.  The space was so incredibly impressive.

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Even more impressive was my conversation with the man behind the thINCubator, Ryan Miller.  He explained how this business incubator is slowly changing the face of how business is not just getting done, but being cultivated.

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“Our job is to help provide programming and space for entrepreneurs.  We want to create jobs, and we really position ourselves as an educational excellerator to facilitate that  

“My job is a business therapist.  I work one on one with a lot of folks, and then we have programs that we use to help them as well.  We also provide space to people that need it… some people just want a presence downtown.  Maybe they’re a designer, or someone that just wants to work in a collaborative space.”

“I want to make the argument that, if you look at a facility like this from an economic development standpoint, I’m going to do more damage seeding 30 companies that each hire 3 people than a bigger company that’s going to go to The [Sillicon] Valley.  I of course want to help a company here get to that point where they can move out there, succeed and then come back and create more jobs!”

“What I’m seeing a lot of are students and people who are looking for a career change, or they went through some kind of job transition and are looking to grow something else.  We have the tools and and the know how here to help.”

I had spoken with Ryan many times before, but after an hour conversation at the thINCubator I understood what a perfect fit he was for the job.  While inspired a and inspiring, creative and motivational, Ryan’s handle on the importance of goal-oriented business development is extraordinary.  His grasp of the numbers, strategy and the practical X’s and O’s that it takes to create a successful business makes him one of Utica’s best resources for future job creation.  While the excitement of creating a business is appealing, Ryan offers the tools and the knowledge to take an exciting idea and turn it into real world success.

Bagg’s Square Cafe

To be perfectly honest, I am not certain whether Bagg’s Square Cafe was open when I first arrived in Utica or not.  Either way, like the thINCubator, I had never visited until recently.

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Bagg’s Square Cafe is a clean and comfortable establishment, brightly lit and ready to serve you some delicious coffee-based beverages.  

The cafe is located on the ground level of 421 Broad Street, a mixed-use residential and retail space with high-end lofts on the upper floors.  This type of space is becoming increasingly popular as cities all over the country return to the idea that living, working and playing in the same area is better for urban areas and local economies.

dsc06028I spoke with Lex, the Cafe Barista.

“It’s good, there’s a lot happening here.  This is a great area, especially Bagg’s square, it’s definitely growing.  I see a lot of good!”

“I think one of the things we need to embrace for the future of Utica is our diversity.  More than just festivals, we have to be sure we celebrate and appreciate that there are people from all over the world here, and we have to really see that as a positive resource for the community.”

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Lex had the look of a down to earth gentleman, but he exuded a tremendous wisdom and intelligence when he spoke.  As we talked, he addressed the good of what was happening while positively and constructively speaking to the areas he felt could be improved upon.  It was a pleasure to have a conversation with this young man, I hope I get to again.  And by the way, I had an outstanding coffee at Bagg’s Square Cafe… It’s simply a great place to sit, get some work done or relax and maybe have some pleasant conversation with the staff!

Utica Bread

Down the street from fine establishments like The Tailor & The Cook and Utica Coffee is Utica Bread.  dsc06059Let’s be real, there’s really no better smell in the world than freshly baked bread… so fittingly, a strong waft of this intoxicating scent hit me as soon as I walked through the door.  Instantly, you are transported back to another time, when you would walk down the street and visit your local bakery.

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I spoke with two delightful young women running the store that day, Jorden and Emilei, who were just thrilled with where they worked and what was happening in their city.

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“We have a real good team trying to bring Utica back,” said Jordan.  “We opened in July of 2015, and the idea was bringing back the mom and pop shops where you could buy things like good bread.  To see the area rise again and knowing we are a little part of that is great!”

“I think when people see [the momentum] starting, you realize you can do it, that everyone has the power to bring your area back.  Once it starts, everyone wants to be a part of it and put their spin on it.”

Emilei chimed in as well.

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“There’s a younger generation really starting to get involved as well. Everyone’s working together and you can really feel that.”

Emilei and Jordan were not only tremendous representatives for their business, they were sharp, intelligent and fun to talk to.  These are the kinds of people, ambassadors even, that are changing the perception of Utica for the better.  Their positive energy was infectious and at the same time incredibly genuine.  And they sent me on my way with a baguette, which doesn’t hurt either 😉

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Bite Bakery and Cafe

Honestly, one of my favorite “new” places downtown is Bite Bakery and Cafe in Franklin Square.  Great atmosphere, some of the best breakfast and lunch food in Utica and two of the nicest owners, Doug and Jason.dsc06073Recently, Bite expanded to include an area specifically dedicated to baked goods, sweets and cakes.  dsc06077dsc06081“We’ve been here since September of 2015,” said Doug.  “I say this all the time, the community has been amazingly supportive… they’ve really rallied around us and supported this venture, and we are just so grateful.”

“The new bakery in the back has been very well received.  We have more cases, more room for “grab and go’s… we are able to produce more because we aren’t sharing a kitchen with the cafe anymore.  We are excited about it.”

“The people that make this city great are the people that live here.  I can’t say it enough, invest in your downtown, invest in what we have here and good things are gonna happen.”

Doug and Jason are doing just that.  

Ocean Blue

One of the places I always stop in Utica now is Ocean Blue.  dsc00352Along with The Tailor & The Cook, it is one of the pinnacles of comfortable fine dining in Central New York. Fresh, delicious seafood is only the beginning… the subway tile walls and gorgeously manicured interior with an emphasis on simplicity and comfort round out the whole experience. And let me tell you about the rooftop deck which overlooks the ever-growing city… it’s an absolute must on a warm summer night.

A City In Transition 

When I first visited Utica two years ago, the excitement was bubbling over like an opened bottle of celebratory champagne. Since then, as you’ve seen here, the energy continues to build as more real world progress is made.  But that progress, as witnessed recently, has not been without hiccups, roadblocks and speed bumps.  The previous enthusiasm over nanotechnology appears to be breaking down into a political battle.  As it does, it appears less and less likely that nano will be a part of Utica’s future.

A proposed hospital downtown is the source of tremendous and at times furious debate, with supporters citing job creation as positives, and opponents angered by the prospect of dimolishing a city neighborhood, among other issues.

And the Comets?  Well they’re not having their best season despite having the best and most loyal fans in the world.  But I’m sure they will bounce back 😉

Countless other issues abound, all of which are sparking conversations across the county.  

This is where it gets hard Utica.  The fire has been started, the motor is running, but like so many other communities, the questions being asked now, the difficult issues being tackled are about where to go from here.  It is no longer the “if,” it is the “where.”  This is the part of urban rebirth that hurts, that delicate and at times awkward adolescence.  This is the time where hope and ideas must blend with rational thought and a careful analysis of direction.  I’ve seen this elsewhere in my travels and in my newfound obsessive study of urban design.  Almost always, this period has a frustrating effect, and can make us feel as if our progress was for nothing.  The truth is, every city has these same stumbling blocks on their way to success. The key is, now more than ever, to stay the course, keep an open mind and remain optimistic.

Will Utica do it?  I have absolutely no doubt.  This is because, as I write this, I am traveling to Utica to spend the day with some of the best people I know.  I come back to Utica so frequently because I believe in the people living there, and I have no doubt their optimistic spirit coupled with their CNY grit and determination will pull them past this difficult period of transition and lead them to a better tomorrow for their home.

In closing, I simply want to say thank you, Utica, for making me feel welcome.  Your city has changed my life for the better, and I for one can’t wait to see what you do next.  See you real soon Utica, and as I’ve said before, you have my heart.