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A changing city draws new investment

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Restaurant partners Tim Reinke, left, and John Sharp outside their newly opened tavern in Peekskill.

John Sharp and his business partners recently opened their second bar and restaurant in downtown Peekskill in the last three years. Another restaurant or retail store opening is not unusual in this postindustrial city in northern Westchester, where a public marriage of arts and commerce seems to work even in the long economic downturn.

“Various entrepreneurs have been coming in and making investments,” said James Slaughter, the city’s economic development director. “People are genuinely excited about Peekskill and think it’s well worth the investment.”

At 911 South St., Gleason’s, the partners’ new food and beverage venture, is “sort of” named after comedian and actor Jackie Gleason, said Sharp, one of a growing number of New York City exiles who live and work in and around Peekskill. Gleason, a former Peekskill resident, might have patronized the South Street bar in its past incarnation as Miller’s. He and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath – a known habitué of Miller’s during New York Jets training camps – were too early, though, for the flatbread pizzas and craft beers introduced by the tavern’s new owners.

“There’s a lot going on,” Sharp said of his adopted city. “A lot of people moving in, a lot of businesses opening.” He and his partners two and a half years ago opened Birdsall House, a popular bar and restaurant at 970 Main St. that features American craft beers and regional farm-to-table food. “For a long time we were the babies in town, but we’re not the babies anymore,” he said.

Sharp, who with his partners also owns a popular Greenwich Village ale house, moved to the Peekskill area nine years ago from Queens. More recently he has seen persons in their twenties, thirties and forties moving up from the city.

City and business leaders want to attract those residents with more downtown housing to create stronger consumer demand there, where upper floors of commercial buildings continue to be developed as live-work artist lofts more than 20 years after that revitalization effort began.

“It’s sort of become a destination town for food and beer,” said Tim Reinke, a partner in Birdsall House and Gleason’s. “A few years ago, you’d have to drive down to White Plains to bar-hop. I think you can do that now in Peekskill.”

“It used to be you always had to drive down-county for fine food,” Sharp said. “We’re bringing traffic in the opposite direction.”

“Part of Peekskill’s turnaround,” said Slaughter, “has been (due to) various entertainment venues that have opened up and have been springboards for others who want to come in.” Prominent among those venues is the Paramount Center for the Arts on Brown Street, a short walk from the restaurants, bars and cafes that line Division Street and Main Street.

“Peekskill has actually come through the recession very well,” said Slaughter. “A lot of these new restaurants have started to happen since the downturn.”

Slaughter and other city officials are newly guided this year by a downtown retail recruitment report and leasing strategy completed by two consulting firms. They found that Peekskill needs to attract even more dining establishments and entertainment and nightlife offerings.

“While Peekskill is a growing destination for regional arts and entertainment offerings, our findings suggest that the city often fails to fulfill its brand promise,” the consultants said. “Beginning with visitors’ experience parking their cars, followed by the quality and timeliness of their dining experience (including their ability to get to their show on time), coupled with the lack of interesting retail offerings both before and after the show, all reflect specific opportunities to improve the downtown visitor experience.”

The consultants recommended the city recruit businesses for which there is pent-up demand, including restaurants, arts-related retail, furniture, specialty retail and specialty foods, followed later by specialty apparel stores and boutiques.

The report said the city should strategically recruit businesses to build “walkable” retail nodes in the vicinity of downtown’s existing anchors. An evening node should focus on retailers that complement the growing arts, entertainment and cultural activities in the vicinity of the Paramount Center and Division Street, while a daytime retail node would cater to employees and visitors to City Hall, Westchester Community College and other downtown office buildings.

Consultants concluded that Peekskill “is in a strong position to build on its strengths as a walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown with a strong cultural brand attached. Yet there is significant work to be done to ensure that a visitor’s experience shopping, dining and visiting cultural destinations within Peekskill is the best that it can possibly be.”

In the future, “If you walk through Peekskill, it’s going to be the renaissance of Cape May, New Jersey,” the oceanside resort community noted for its 19th-century architecture, said real estate investor Gabriel Arango. “Everybody is working together to make Peekskill better.”

Arango, a Realtor and owner of Gabmar Realty Corp. in White Plains, knows both the old city and the new Peekskill to which, he said, New York City residents and returning elderly on fixed, limited incomes are drawn. In 1981, he paid $12,000 for 992 Main St., a 19th-century commercial building for which he is seeking city approvals to renovate as an upscale wine and tapas restaurant.

Thirty years later, Arango in 2011 paid $450,000 for 900 Main St., a vacant, architecturally distinctive 19th-century building that he plans to reopen with a retail tenant on the first floor and a mom-and-pop food market on the second floor. On the third floor, the building’s Dramatic Hall, which dates to 1838, will be restored to use as a theater, he said.

“You buy a property anywhere else maybe 45 to 50 percent more than you buy in Peekskill,” said Arango “Opportunities are there.”

Among Westchester County’s aged cities, “The most aggressively wealthy for the next 10 years will be Peekskill,” the investor predicted. “Because the environment for business is growing every day. Everybody is cooperating, city and industry, to put together the idea and let it flourish.”

“It’s changing like every day,” Sharp said of the adopted city in which he and his partners have invested.

“It’s a sleeping giant,” Arango said.

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