Friends of Fredonia band together to better village

With all the recent negative news about businesses and people leaving the local area, a handful of business owners, civic leaders and residents have decided enough is enough when it comes to taking a back seat and letting others deal with the problems.

The Friends of Fredonia Committee came to fruition in April, with a goal of highlighting the positives of “our little slice of heaven,” as 27-year-old committee member Tyler Gotowka so eloquently stated. The OBSERVER recently sat down with Gotowka and fellow committee member and village Trustee Susan Mackay in Gotowka’s office at Lawley Tradition Insurance on Vineyard Drive to learn more about the Friends of Fredonia.

“The whole goal of this committee is to bring our village back to life and put us on the map by beautifying and revitalizing the area,” Gotowka said. “I think we’re just off the radar; we’re a place that people drive through. Oftentimes, people don’t understand what we have to offer to tourists and visitors.”

Mackay, who came back to live in the area after moving out west, agreed, adding many people that live in the area do not even realize the treasures they have right in their backyard (1891 Opera House, Grange No. 1, etc.), and must also recognize the ones that they have lost at the same time.

“We’ve got to recognize the economic situation our village government is in now,” she said. “In the good times, the village could do a lot. Well, they can’t do it anymore, so we’ve got to take our community back. The government also has a lot of extra rules and regulations to deal with since they’re handling taxpayers’ money. We as the committee aren’t bound to those bureaucratic processes.”

Mackay explained the group started a few weeks after the devastating news that Carriage House would be closing by early next year, laying off about 425 people. A few other committee members called her, concerned about what was happening and wanting to do something about it.

“They called me because I had tried to start a local development group a while back,” she noted. “They asked what my thoughts were and I thought, ‘This is great and I’m excited.’ The business people were originating it, making this a really grassroots effort; it’s not government-down.”

The committee has succeeded in several endeavors already, starting small and building their way up to bigger projects. Group members got up bright and early the Sunday after SUNY Fredonia’s FredFest to clean up the usual after-party trash left all around downtown Fredonia. Gotowka added the committee has also teamed up with the Timko family to help with the eventual donation of a large street clock in the downtown area in the near future.

“We’re going after the low-hanging fruit right now so that we can have some immediate successes in our group, get a little bit of interest and recognition in the community, and build our way up to bigger projects,” he explained.

The Friends are also in the process of setting up the seasonal re-opening of the village information booth in Barker Common on Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., depending on if renovations can be completed in time for that date. The re-opening will include a number of activities, including a child ID program, music, a clown, hot dogs and a bicycle safety check.

Renovations to the booth include scraping/painting the exterior, replacing the front window and shelf, adding a new rack and updating brochures. All materials and labor are being donated, including the manning of the booth throughout the summer.

Mackay hinted a run for incorporating as an official not-for-profit may be in the Friends’ future, which could beef up credibility and responsibility to the village, as well as open the door to grants and a solidified financial base. With that extra clout, the committee may be able to attract additional businesses to fill the empty storefronts on Main Street.

“We’ve talked about putting artwork in the empty storefronts, like little pop-up galleries, since there is an art program right here at the college,” Mackay remarked. “Maybe bring their artwork and showcase it so we can be the kind of college town we can be, with positive energy and innovative ideas going on in those storefronts.”

Gotowka commented that after moving back to the local area from New York City, he has seen a separation between the college and village; he wants to change that.

“We want to get some coordination between the two,” he said, with Mackay subsequently pointing out the current college president, Virginia Horvath, seems to recognize that.

Currently, the Friends of Fredonia is comprised of the following core members, other than Gotowka and Mackay: Heenan’s Pub’s Shaun Heenan (chairman), Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe, Spoke Folk’s Rich Goodman, Bahgat & Laurito-Bahgat’s Sham Bahgat, Ellicottville Brewing Company’s Jim Nau, James B. Thompson Auto Repair’s Melissa Thompson and former village trustee and retired SUNY Fredonia employee Pat Damore.

“We’ve all put some pretty amazing ideas out there and we’re only just beginning,” Gotowka said. “I see us as different than other groups out there because our group is so diverse and we represent a wide array of people. We really want to accomplish what we set our minds to and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this group, as well as Fredonia.”

The committee meets about once every week and is open to new members interested in making the village a better place. For questions, project suggestions, or even to join, contact Gotowka at 560-6436 or email tgotowka@lawleyinsurance.com.

Comments on this article may be sent to gfox@observertoday.com