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Divided opinions uncovered over Olean street reconstruction

Olean residents will become accustomed to the sounds of road construction over the next two years as the city's main thoroughfare, North Union Street, undergoes a $9 million reconstruction. The impact of the project has been the subject of community debate.

State route 16 and its heavy traffic comes through Olean along North Union Street, where restaurants and business line both sides of the road.

While some merchants brace for the inevitable inconvenience, one city mainstay, Bradner's Galleries, isn't waiting. Bradner's is closing after more than 100 years in the city of Olean.

John Anderson of Nashville, was among those contracted by Bradner's as they chose to conduct a liquidation, rather than grind through a couple of summers of construction.

"Exactly. Well, actually I heard it from the owner. That was why he brought us in to close this store because he didn't want to stick around and go through that, obviously."

For years, Bradner's Department Store was Olean's place to purchase the latest fashions and modern conveniences. The department store departed North Union Street, but the name eventually returned with the opening of the furniture store, Bradner's Galleries.

"I hear more from the customers that come in, they have a lot of childhood memories, let's put it that way, of Bradner's," Anderson said.  

"I had one lady just today tell me, she was a little older, 'This is where I bought my wedding dress at Bradner's.' A lot of history."

Some in Olean say that Bradner's would have closed in the coming years, even without the construction. It's one of many opinions shared during a recent visit to Olean to discuss the North Union Street project, an emotional community issue that many business people would discuss, though some declined to be recorded for this story.

At the Paper Factory on North Union Street, Sherrie was willing to share her thoughts.

"At first I was sad because old things going (away) to me are sad. But I'm hoping that this will renew everything and make it pretty again. Because if you do look up our street from that way or that way, there's not a lot of pretty things about it. So, I'm hoping it will revamp everything," Sherrie said.

Sherrie said that she grew to embrace the reconstruction project after attending a series of public meetings. The meetings, she said, weren't well-attended, but that didn't stop negative opinions from spreading throughout the community.

Many have criticized the addition of four traffic roundabouts to North Union Street. Some believe the roundabouts will snarl traffic and have an adverse impact on one of the city's largest employers, Dresser-Rand.

Larry Sorokes, the president and CEO of the Greater Olean Chamber of Commerce, says he has heard the negative opinions.

"One of the stories that I hear quite often is that our biggest employer, Dresser-Rand, which has huge trailers that come from their plant. There's been  a story out there that their trailers will not be able to maneuver through this (the roundabouts)," Sorokes said.  

"When, in fact, they (Dresser-Rand officials) have been at the table since day one, ensuring that they will be able to maneuver just fine and they are 100 percent supportive."

When it comes to roundabouts, Olean isn't alone in dealing with negative public responses. In fact, Olean planners have reached out to some in the village of Hamburg where roundabouts were added during their recent makeover.

Village trustee Laura Palisano Hackathorn was asked to come to Olean to speak with business owners about Hamburg's reconstruction. She admits that it was a contentious time in the village.

"There were even political sign-types made up that said 'No Roundabouts' in red, stuck on front lawns," Hackathorn recalled.  

"I would get stopped on the street and people would tell me, 'We don't want roundabouts.'"
Hackathorn says the concerns that roundabouts would create traffic jams have proven to be unfounded. Business owners were concerned over how their customers would deal with the inconveniences of construction. She says communication, and a business community that helped its own, helped to quell those worries.  

"We are very, very lucky and proud to say that not one business closed due to reconstruction," Hackathorn said.

Olean businesses hope for the same, but the city of Olean is not the village of Hamburg. While North Union Street still retains some impressive heritage architecture, the street is also home to an ill-fitting mall and several national chain stores. Some storefronts sit vacant.

The $9 million upgrade will improve an aging infrastructure. One utility worker said crews recently replaced a 140-year-old gas line in one of Olean's neighborhoods. New sidewalks and roundabouts should make for a more walkable community.

"What I really hope to see is a vibrant downtown with a 100-percent occupancy in our storefronts, a variety of interesting shops and businesses and restaurants, and a population that embraces it," Sorokes said.

Those high hopes will need to wait at least two construction seasons before becoming reality.

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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.