Are businesses in favor of a pedestrian friendly Market Street? Depends on who you ask

Tom Passmore
The Leader

CORNING - If the court of public opinion is any indication, residents of the Corning area would like to see Market Street open to pedestrians (and close to traffic) at some point this summer —- but some businesses aren't so quick to agree.

An online petition titled 'Bring back pedestrian friendly Market Street,' asking the city to revive the 2020 plan, has received almost 3,000 e-signatures

The petition cites a multitude of factors for the pedestrian-friendly street being a good idea, including safe outdoor spaces due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, additional space for certain businesses, and adding to the experience of Corning.

Corning's Market St., located in the historic Gaffer District, was closed to traffic during parts of last summer, allowing for increased restaurant and bar capacity, as well as additional space for retailers to sell their merchandise.

"If more people are here, it's common sense that the odds are better that they are going to stop into a business and spend money," said Vincent Azzarelli, owner of the bar VOLO on Market Street and creator of the petition. "If more people are coming up, it means more businesses like us can hire back our staff. There's a lot of moving parts to this."

In 2020, the street was closed from June 12-Aug. 1, seven days a week, and the closure was extended until Sept. 8, but it was limited to Fridays through Sundays. The decision was made while business capacities were limited due to the pandemic, and it allowed restaurants, bars and retailers to serve customers outside. 

Not all businesses saw a boost in sales

While the public has been mostly in favor of a repeat of a pedestrian-friendly Market Street, business owners are split on the topic. Some businesses would be in favor of closing the street permanently or just going back to the Friday-Sunday model.

The City of Corning and Gaffer District haven't given any indication of what they plan to do.

"The Gaffer District has not taken a position yet on what they plan to do," Corning City Council member Allison Hunt said at a recent council meeting. "At this point, the Gaffer District has not decided to submit anything — (I) don't know if they will or not — and there has been no decision made."

Some retailers are not happy the plan is being revisited by other businesses this year, saying the closure hurts sales as customers find other locations to shop.

One business owner said the "negative impact on our business last year was undeniable ... and severe." 

Another owner, Ben Borkowski, of Marich Music, said his family-owned full-line music retail store sees a 37% decrease in sales when the street is closed to traffic, and last summer was no exception.

"The only people who should have any say in the street closure are the business and property owners on Market Street. Period," Borkowski said. "If this isn't the case, I should spend this time right now writing petitions to close the streets that my competitors are on."

Borkowski said he is in favor of a Friday-Sunday model of closing Market Street to vehicle traffic.

"It is the most fair model that allows businesses to have the street the way they want it when they need it most," said Borkowski. "Increasing the street closure to 24/7 only marginally helps restaurants and bars, while doing much greater damage to other Market Street businesses."

Other retail owners, such as Jill Agosta, owner of Connors Mercantile and Pure Design, were in favor of closing the street last year.

"Last year, the majority of our customers loved being able to stroll the street to shop and have lunch or dinner," said Agosta. "We also wanted to help support our local restaurants. We were able to bring our merchandise outside to participate in sidewalk sales and other store events that we promoted. We did see an increase in business."

Restaurants, bars benefit from Market Street closure

In 2020, Market Street was closed to vehicular traffic for parts of the summer.

Outdoor seating greatly benefited restaurants in the early stages of the pandemic. 

"We saw sales jump more than 20% with that addition," said Nicholas Thayer, owner of Nickel's Pit BBQ. "Guests often feel safer from COVID in an outdoor setting ... and what better way to experience our amazing thoroughfare than (to) sit in the middle of it?"

Nickel's Pit BBQ opened for dine-in service on June 12, 2020.

Market Street Coffee and Tea owner Richard Weachock is in favor of closing the street for the summer but would consider going much further.

"I would be in favor of closing Market Street for the summer, or permanently for that matter," said Weachok. "I think Market Street would be great as a cobblestone street with pavilions and outdoor seating all the time."

The owner of craft supply store Wooly Minded agreed.

"A street without traffic is friendly, relaxing and inviting," said Jean Gray, "It is all the things we need Market Street to be to encourage more visitors from both near and far."  

Sorge's Restaurant owners Mike and Christine Sorge talk with patrons in the outside dining area on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Some retail stores are neutral on the subject, not knowing if a decrease in business last year was the result of the street closure or the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

"The pandemic has played a huge role in the decrease of business (and still is)," said Ashley Bates, owner of Threads + Co. "It wouldn’t be fair to say one way or the other as we’ve never closed the street prior other than (for) events (or) festivals, and we’ve never dealt with a global pandemic while being in business. Realistically, we have nothing to compare it to."

Threads + Co. moved some inventory outside but didn't see a change in business because of it. She just wants whatever decision is made to be consistent.

And although restaurants have upgraded facilities to meet CDC guidelines, some say safety is the main concern and a pedestrian-friendly Market Street would help that.

"It is safer for everyone to eat outdoors," said Aniello's owner Ann Marie Kinlin. "Although Aniello's has invested in air purifiers, UV lighting in the ductwork, and numerous acrylic barriers, we feel (outdoor dining) is in the best interest of our community."