In projects big and small, Watertown’s downtown reviving – but some say city government lacks vision

Mar 6, 2014

As with many small cities, Watertown’s downtown has been decaying for years, with boarded-up buildings and businesses dwindling.

Now, a handful of big projects are reviving the historical structures at the center of town, and some new small businesses are thriving. But some say the city could be doing more to encourage growth.

The formerly vacant and crumbling Woolworth building in downtown Watertown will soon host apartments and commercial space.
Credit Joanna Richards

In the basement of the old Woolworth building on Public Square, workmen are framing a new doorway. By January 2015, the building will reopen after years of vacancy, full of apartments and first-floor storefronts.

This is the most visible sign of the revival taking place at the heart of downtown Watertown.

Other building projects are happening too – apartments and commercial space will soon fill the huge, defunct Mercy Hospital property and the crumbling Masonic Temple. Stream, a call center and important local employer, is expanding and adding workers.

Todd Tarzia opened Vito's Gourmet last year on Public Square. He says he had a "gut feeling" about a turnaround downtown.
Credit Joanna Richards

There are subtler changes, too.

Todd Tarzia says hello to a customer as he grinds coffee beans for a mocha. He opened Vito’s Gourmet about a year ago. It’s a bright, airy spot, packed at lunchtime. It’s one of a handful of small businesses that have opened on the square in recent years.

It’s all adding up to trend. Tarzia says it hit him as a “gut feeling” about the place and timing that led him to start Vito’s – a dream he’d had for years. But he says the entry of large-scale developers into downtown confirms his hunch.

“These are people who are good at predicting economic trends. So I feel enthusiastic for my business, because I think I’m sort of right in the heart of where things are,” he said.

Economic development officials share Tarzia’s sense that downtown Watertown has hit a turning point.

“When one development occurs, another one sees development happening, and says, ‘There must be something going on.’ We’re seeing that,” said Don Alexander, head of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency.

He stresses that although everything seems to be converging now, it’s taken years of behind-the-scenes work.

“Planning, meetings, discussions, emails, phone calls, pleadings, meetings,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, I mean, just – it has been a long process.”

April's Cake Shop on Public Square expanded after just a year and a half in business. Owner April Johnson says she goes through almost 90 pounds of vanilla frosting a week.
Credit Joanna Richards

The city has taken some concrete steps in recent years to encourage development. A $7 million project with the state Department of Transportation improved infrastructure and traffic patterns around Public Square. It made the area more walkable. There’s better parking, and a new pavilion for a popular farmers market.  

But Alexander and others in economic development here say there’s an element lacking – city vision, and leadership.

“I know nobody likes studies. Nobody likes to do master plans and all that,” said Gary Beasley, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown. The nonprofit works on city revitalization and affordable housing projects, including many downtown.

“But at the same time, you’ve got to look ahead several years,” Beasley said. “You’ve got to have a direction. Because all of these funding sources take so long to get.”

The city has missed some important opportunities, he said. It showed little interest in expanding downtown parking when other agencies floated a project idea a few years back, Beasley said. And City Council has panned proposals for rental property inspections, a tool other cities use to reduce blight. 

City Council newcomer Stephen Jennings wants government to take a more active role in development and other issues. Starting this year, population growth in the Watertown metro area triggered automatic state aid for city improvements. Jennings says the funding is an opportunity to do exactly the kind of long-range thinking Beasley thinks is necessary.

Woolworth’s old doorway, with signs of construction.
Credit Joanna Richards

 “I think we should ramp up our planning. I think we should take control of our vision and what that’s going to be. And I think we should use those dollars to invest in that, first and foremost,” he said.

“The people who want master plans and visions and things – we’ve got a basement full of those things,” said Mayor Jeff Graham. He has a more hands-off take on the city’s role.

“What you need are people with money and initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit to come in and invest their time, effort and money. And that’s what we’re starting to see,” he said.

One thing everyone agrees on: downtown is improving.  And residents have their own visions.

“Plenty of options for shopping, more places to eat,” said Michelle Sonoda, on a break from her work at health food store The Mustard Seed.

“A much bigger arts center,” her colleague, Rick Snyder, suggested.

“A restaurant that’s serving a lot of local products – a nice, tucked-away place that’s got some local wine in it,” said Jay Matteson, the county’s agricultural coordinator.

Gary Beasley, of Neighbors of Watertown, wants to see somewhere to buy magazines and books, and more places where people can gather. And maybe somewhere he can get a good hot fudge sundae.

What all these people want boils down to one thing: a cultural center for the city.

A downtown “is an indicator of a community’s health, and it’s an indicator of a community’s pride,” Beasley said. “Watertown’s got a lot of character.”

And with new energy, he said, the city is regaining the sense of life it’s been missing for so long.