Like so many other small rural communities, Cairo (pronounced Care-Oh) lost most of its Main Street businesses during the 1970s & 80s. Buildings fell into disrepair, and street level storefronts were converted into housing rentals. Consumer buying shifted away from local shops to retail destinations in malls and big-box stores over the next few decades, and things looked bleak for quite a while. Then, a dedicated group of community-minded business people, residents, and legislators joined forces to revitalize their Main Street, and new, vibrant businesses are attracting more and more patrons every year.
If you were to walk down Main Street in Cairo, NY in the 1960s, you’d be strolling through a quintessential small town business district, with every storefront buzzing with activity. After all, Cairo was the ‘crossroads of commerce’ in Greene County, on the main road from Catskill to Greenville, Durham, and Windham. Then came the transformation of NYS Route 23 into a divided highway, linking the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and the NYS Thruway to county destinations by going around Cairo, not through it. Locals of a certain age still remember calling the new road ‘The Cairo Bypass’ and it proved to slowly bleed Main Street businesses dry.
An influx of new residents and entrepreneurs moving upstate in the past 20 years, combined with ongoing infrastructure investments by the town and county (including public-private partnerships) as well as community organizations like the Cairo Development Foundation is re-making Main Street into a home for ‘destination businesses’ that patrons are willing to leave the highway to visit.
As recently as 2015, Main Street was in need of some TLC. The shopping plaza at the intersection of NYS 32 was a driving destination, but customers weren’t making their way up Main Street. The town initiated a new sidewalk project along the street to the plaza with the goal of increasing foot traffic, and the Cairo Development Foundation set to work acquiring derelict buildings and renovating them for retail occupancy.
Their first success came with the re-purposing of the Cairo Garage building into an anchor point in the heart of downtown. This required complete restoration of the exterior, and major interior renovation creating street level retail locations and second floor utility space. The demolition of an adjacent building has now made way for a pocket park to be constructed, adding to the ambiance of the business district. The ongoing goal of these efforts is to create a Main Street that invites businesses to set up shop, and provides visitors with amenities unique to the area.
Major investments have also been made in the Angelo Canna Town Park, transforming it into a community-accessible green space that accommodates sports, play, exercise, and entertainment. It is the home of the annual Greene County Youth Fair, as well as sports leagues and community events, and boasts a scenic walking trail along the Shinglekill.
New businesses have embraced these revitalization efforts with the full understanding that customers need to choose to leave the highway and come to Main Street. The Red Star Café is one luring customers from ‘the Bypass’ with a billboard featuring the single word ‘ESSPRESSO’ and the direction ‘Turn Here’.
The northern end of Main Street is home to the Old Factory Brewing Company where father & son team Tim(s) Cornelison (Sr. & Jr.) transformed a 140 year-old former Canada Dry bottling plant into a destination brewery & restaurant. They host live music both inside and outside, as well as events. You can even view the brewing operation through a wall of glass!
The rise in new businesses in Cairo has not gone unnoticed by the leadership of commercial lender Bank of Greene County who recently announced the establishment of a $5 million program to fund low interest loans for Cairo Main Street businesses.
So, the moral of this ‘if you build it, they will come’ story seems to be that re-establishing Main Streets as ‘destinations for the unique’ is the key to revitalizing rural communities by getting customers to leave the bypass.
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