New Owners Shake Up Hamilton

Mark Fuller

The face of Hamilton’s storefronts is continuing to change. Last fall, two ownership deals were made which ensured the shuffling, renaming and disappearance of several businesses in town.

Those who have walked through downtown Hamilton only to notice three – and soon to be four – freshly empty storefronts have seen the immediate result of the Smith Block sale. The Broad Street building space between the Parkside Deli and Adventure Bike and Board, called the Smith Block, came under new ownership last October. Previously owned by the Freemasons, a fact illustrated by symbols above the doorways, the building was purchased this fall by an entrepreneur from New York City.

The new ownership has brought significant changes. All four businesses occupying the Smith Block space have decided to close or relocate as a result of the new lease. The new owner, Bill Steely, said he first became interested in Hamilton real estate after seeing a “For Sale” sign on the building.

“My wife and I have been coming to Hamilton antique shows for years,” Steely said. “We thought it would be a good investment.”

After researching the market value of the space, Steely made a proposal.

“The rent went up to $1,500 plus about $100 for utilities,” proprietor of S&S TV and Appliance Stephen Smith said. The stores had been paying varying rents to the Freemason owners, all of which hovered around $500 monthly. Hearing of the sale and the price increase, upset store owners called for help.

“We got a phone call saying ‘We just got a new lease!'” Executive Director of Hamilton’s Partnership for Community Development (PCD) Eve-Anne Schwartz said.

Founded in 1999, the PCD is a three-way collaboration between the Village of Hamilton, the Town of Hamilton and Colgate University. The Partnership includes both small and large local businesses and is dedicated to enhancing economic vitality in Hamilton. The PCD reacted to the local businesses pleas by entering into negotiations with Steely.

“I got a call from Jeff Tuttle ’72 [of the PCD],” Steely said. “He graciously offered to mediate a meeting.”

“As Development Coordinator, Jeff tried to negotiate an agreement.” Schwartz said. “I think we were successful in buying some time. We helped put them in touch.”

Schwartz underlined the PCD’s function as facilitator of communications between Steely and the store owners, citing a “strength in numbers” approach. Even with the Partnership’s assistance, Smith Block businesses had trouble making an agreement.

“Essentially they said ‘We can’t afford the rent your asking,'” Steely said. “I said ‘Look, I’ll meet you in the middle.'”

“He came down to listen to our complaints,” Smith said. “I guess he understood at that time, but it seems nothing came of it.”

Steely’s asking price came down about $500 from the original, even going as low as $800 for one store. Despite concessions, the price hike proved to be too much for all four businesses.

The proprietors of P.M. Jones, which sold small, eclectic household items, closed after 46 years in Hamilton. The store, however, was going out of business before the new lease. The owner of the interior design store Cranberries closed shop, and has decided to continue the business on a limited scale out of her home. The third store, Evergreen Gallery, moved around the corner into the Lebanon Street space previously occupied by John’s Shoe Shop. Smith decided to move his shop as well. S&S will vacate their old spot for a bigger space on route 12 next to the Country Store.

“This is our sixth year here,” Smith said. “We’ll be moving out at the end of the month.”

But Smith is optimistic about his move to the old Hamilton Lumberyard location.

“It was available. It will be good for us with its bigger space and off-street parking. I think the move will help business.”

For now, the most immediate result of the new lease is four empty store fronts. Steely, however, sees the change as an opportunity.

“I never wanted to clear house,” he said. “I don’t like vacant lots. They’re not good for the town; they’re not good for me. I am very optimistic. I think we’ll be able to put in several new, solid businesses. My first priority is to get businesses in those storefronts.”

As part of this effort, Steely is coming to Hamilton this Friday to do research.

“I want to talk to students,” he said. “I want to see what people want.”

“The sale was unfortunate for the community. It’s not good to have empty store fronts,” Schwartz said. “But there are a lot of challenges to downtown merchants.” She added that businesses that can’t stay above water rarely survive for long in a competitive small town market like Hamilton.

“In the meantime,” Schwartz said. “We will all continue to try to find new businesses to bring in.”

A second major ownership deal occurred in Hamilton this year, just a few minutes down the road. Last month, Tops supermarket was acquired by Grand Union Family Markets. Grand Union had preceded Tops in its Hamilton location only five years ago. Once a major business in New York State, the bulk of Grand Union stores were forced to sell off their businesses several years ago. The large supply company CNS which owns Grand Union has resurrected the name, however, purchasing 117 stores since last February.

“CNS has acquired all of our Tops employees,” Store Manager Ken Bowman said. “But this will be a major change because Grand Union is so anxious to buy the store. They are, right now, the fastest growing retailer in the United States.”

Tops will close at 6:00 pm on February 11, and open the following morning as a Grand Union. With this shift, Colgate students will notice a different line of available products at their supermarket. Grand Union plans to bring in their basic grocery line, which will be a departure from the old Tops merchandise. After a time, said Bowman, Grand Union will start acquiring different items more in demand at the Hamilton location.

“This will be a good move. People will see both a price change and a quality change,” said Bowman. “Both will be for the better.”