About two months ago, we moved back to Olean from North Carolina. Bob was excited to begin his new job as Director of Public Works for the city of Olean, and I was a little apprehensive. But I have to say, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the new direction Olean is headed. The Walkable Olean project, which was begun while we were still here, has finished a major component, which was removing all the traffic lights from North Union street (replaced with roundabouts), extending the sidewalks, improving parking, planting a variety of flora to catch and process run off, and making crosswalks more visible and better maintained. Union street has really been revitalized because of this. There are benches, bike racks, outdoor seating for restaurants, and plenty of room for a variety of pedestrians – whether walking, rolling, pushing a stroller, or any other way of getting around.
Even more exciting than having a main thoroughfair that is genuinely pleasant to walk down, is that businesses are beginning to pop up along the street. Restaurants and bars are returning, occupying previously empty buildings, giving people an excuse to spend more time on the street. A new favorite of ours is Union Whisk[e]y. Buildings are being rehabbed, becoming not only habitable (as many were in danger of being condemned, and a few actually were), but also interesting places to work and socialize, with many of the historic details preserved and put on display.
Within a few weeks of returning to Olean, I met with Karen Buchheit, the director of the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation, and we chatted about how I could help the foundation over lunch, which was in another new restaurant, Union Tea Cafe. Union Tea is in the ground floor of a recently rescued building, which most people in Olean call the “old OBI building.” OBI stands for Olean Business Institute, which is what occupied the building since the early 1960s (fun fact, I had a couple visitors to my office a few weeks ago who were touring the building who were from the class of 1963 and 1965). Karen gave me a tour of the building, which also houses the Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation, and mentioned that it had coworking space. By the next week, I was coworking out of the building (which is how some OBI graduates were able to stop by my office). Before my first week working in the office was over, an old friend, Jim Stitt (CEO of Cutco) who I had worked with before on several committees and boards stopped into my office and recruited me to be on a committee (dedicated to preserving the historical images of local businesses and displaying them in the old OBI building). So really, very quickly after returning to Olean, I felt like I had a strong purpose and a committment to Olean’s revitalization.
Not long after, Bob and I attended an awards ceremony for livable communities in Western New York, where Olean won an award for the Union street project. It was really interesting to talk to city planners for Buffalo, who were watching Olean with a great deal of interest (one called it “the Brooklyn of Western New York” which was surprising to hear). I especially liked talking to this one planner who told me how he approaches community redesign – he goes to the community prepared to be pursuaded. Not just prepared to listen, but prepared to incorporate the feedback that people who live in the community give him, what they say, and how they actually live.
The day after that, we attended a press conference here in Olean, where the Lieutenant Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, presented Olean with a $10 million grant, thanks in large part to the investment already underweigh. A big reason that Olean is making a comeback comes down to a dedicated cohort of people, including long-time residents and others who are all truly committed to doing what it takes to bring Olean back to it’s heyday. I’ve already mentioned a couple people, Karen and Jim, and another one is Jeff Belt (here is an article that summarizes everything nicely, and the article itself is quite relevant), who has been driving a lot of the changes I can see around me (literally, from my office window). Bob has also been thrilled to work closely with Jeff, as quite a lot of the work they do overlaps, obviously. So it is a very exciting time to be in Olean, to be sure!
My coworking space is truly wonderful. The building functions as both private offices that are for rent, coworking spaces, and a business incubator (read more here). The Olean Business Development council manages the office space; when I was talking with Larry Sorokes about moving into a space, we were talking about how great it is that Olean has something like this, and he pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: that having rentable office space (by both the day and the month), people who come home for holidays / vacations, can have a place to work if they need to. If their company has a remote work policy, they can even reduce the amount of vacation that they need to take (potentially), just by having a fully functioning office right here to use.
I have use of a private office that has one entire wall of windows, with a view down Union street. Everything I need is provided. For example, I found that the wifi network wasn’t working well enough for me (I have a lot of Zoom calls, which use audio and video), and so they created a network just for me. I work two floors above a tea shop (the aforementioned one), so I have an endless supply of food and drink (this is actually a problem), and I never know who will stop by. Here are some photos:
We haven’t found a house yet, but that will come. There are plenty of other things that we can focus on. For example, the twins entered kindergarten at East View elementary, where Bob went to elementary school, and they’re both blossoming. Eleanor recently was recognized for reaching 25 hours of reading time, and Henry has made huge strides in his own reading, and can apparently do quite a lot of addition in his head. We are walking distance from the brewery, Four Mile Brewing, and are just two doors away from a friend of the kids. Grant has made everyone at daycare fall in love with him, even as they refer to him as a bull in a china shop. The most significant thing about moving back, however, besides Bob getting his dream job in public service, is that we are close to both our sets of parents (we’re living with mine at the moment), so the kids are getting plenty of time with them. And, one more nice thing to round out a list of nice things – 4 or 5 times since being back, the person ahead of me has paid for my coffee at Tim Hortons, including this morning. If that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.