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Brian Nelson pointed down Falconer’s Main Street toward the site of last year’s devastating fire on March 22, still a vacant lot choked with charred debris.
“This place will not stay vacant like that one. I can promise you that,” he said with great determination as he watched the burnt skeleton of his own building being demolished last Thursday near the corner of W. Main and Work. Nelson’s apartment building, also the decades-long home of his Vac Shop, was destroyed in a sudden blaze last week.
“In 10 days this site will be clear,” he promised. “I don’t know what’s next, but this story is not over.”
O’Brien’s optimism is not universal, but not uncommon, either.
“We’re staying open,” said Phil Ricotta, owner-operator of Phil’s Auto Plaza directly across the street from Obrien’s building. Although Phil’s Main Street entrance remained cordoned off with bright yellow “Police Line” tape to protect the demolition workers, loyal customers simply diverted to his Work Street entrance.
“How do you get to the other side of life if you don’t put one foot in front of the other?” Phil asked with a determination that matched Nelson’s. “We’ve invested 60 years here and three generations of our lives. We’re not going anywhere.”
A few miles west, on the far side of Jamestown in West Ellicott, the Sam’s Club, which opened in 1998, is now closing, dealing an economic blow to more than 100 workers and their families. In both cases, however, individuals are finding their own way forward, sometimes with surprising optimism.
“I’m very employable,” a worker named Jane said while smiling at customers moving through her check-out line at Sam’s Club. “I’ve changed jobs before and I will do it again.” Another associate said, “This is the nudge I needed. The next 60 days of pay Sam is giving us and my severance package will help me start the new business I always wanted to have.”
A Sam’s Club manager explained that the company is now holding job fairs with local employers. The company has pledged to help their workers find new jobs wherever the local economy can absorb them. It has also offered transfers to any other of the company’s 5,400 locations across the U.S.
West Ellicott Town Supervisor Patrick McLaughlin said, “A silver lining might be hard to see just now,” but he expressed confidence in the resilience of local residents who have overcome big challenges before. McLaughlin is also bringing local and state legislators to focus more intensely now on regional economic needs.
“Our previous experience in last year’s fire taught us some valuable lessons,” Falconer Mayor James Rensel said. “The community response was great, but this year it was even faster because of what we learned.”
“No sooner had the firefighters responded to last week’s blaze, than many of their wives – trained EMTs and first-responders themselves – immediately set up medical triage for the fire victims. Almost as quickly, the school opened its doors for anyone now made homeless. The fire chief then made sure they got there safely and out of danger. Everything was amazingly smooth,” Rensel said. “The Red Cross and Salvation Army could then seamlessly team up with us.”
Trends and Plans
While natural and man-made disasters, like fires, are difficult, when citizens band together they clearly do build resilience within their communities. The Greater Jamestown region and Chautauqua County have experienced many cycles of setback and regrowth and have often discovered new community strengths in the rebuilding process.
On the other hand, economists are now coming to agree that the switch from retail to e-commerce is a forever-trend, driving retail and mall outlets to keep shrinking their footprints and staff.
Community resilience in this new era – the ability to quickly recover from difficult changes – will require new strategies to meet basic human needs.
Recent local experiences highlight the value of positive attitudes and resourcefulness. Bouncing back to what was, however, may not be the best next step …and may not even be possible. The best next step for a resilient community appears more likely to be a step forward into something new, whatever the community decides that should be.