Outgoing Gebbie Foundation Director Believes Riverwalk Is Key

Although he’s leaving the Gebbie Foundation, CEO John Merino strongly believes that Jamestown needs to continue to focus on the Riverwalk in the future in order to be a contender.

“What I would suggest in the future is that what’s beginning now is what needs to be focused on, and that’s the waterfront piece and the development of public access to the river,” Merino said. “It will be great when the community has a sense that they’re located on a freshwater river again, because there was no access to that space for years. I think by next spring the community is just going to be thrilled that the Riverwalk is being extended.”

There are currently plans to create a parkscape near the Jamestown Gateway Train Station, as well as access to the Riverwalk from the train station. To Merino, the development of waterfront access is a gift to the entire community. Ultimately, he would also like to see the city remove or replace all of the low-lying bridges that span the river in order to reconnect downtown to Chautauqua Lake.

“I think the folks in the community are really going to appreciate their waterfront again, probably in a way that hasn’t happened, and I’m not trying to sound facetious, but in a way that hasn’t happened since the Native Americans inhabited the area,” Merino said. “Once industry started to move in, it was set up on the water. Most waterfronts are still like that in the Northeast.”

According to Merino, many of the communities that are thriving now, though, like Providence, R.I., are doing so because they’ve reclaimed their waterfront.

“Jamestown can absolutely be that, and I think we will. The stage has been set,” he said.

“The theory is that it takes about 20 years for a municipality to become really stressed,” Merino continued. “Between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, most northeastern industrial communities were really suffering. They had large aging populations and large young populations with a small workforce in the middle that was supporting both ends.”

When trying to rebuild a community, it oftentimes takes 20 or 25 years to impact that change, according to Merino. Here, however, because of foundations like Gebbie, it only took a decade to accomplish more than 100 projects.

“Ordinarily, this stuff would be put together piece by piece over a long period, so this community really has a leg up,” Merino said. “Now that they’re pursuing the waterfront development, the parkscape behind the train station and the potential of developing a national comedy center here in Jamestown, in the next five years, people aren’t even going to recognize this place.”

Merino noted that a decade ago, there were many naysayers who didn’t believe that Jamestown could be revitalized. Over the course of a decade, however, he watched people’s perception change and saw more residents beginning to believe in positive change.

“They’re not half as critical as they used to be because the proof is there,” Merino said. “They’re seeing the change and the change is dynamic. We’re not so big and our problems aren’t so severe here in Jamestown that we can’t manage them.”