Grass-roots effort drives development

OBSERVER Photo Residents who attended Comprehensive Plan meetings in Dunkirk this week offered plenty of opinions on housing.

Weeks before its National Comedy Center grand opening on Wednesday, Jamestown was receiving plenty of positive national publicity. Chautauqua County’s largest city, once known for furniture manufacturing in the 1940s and ’50s, is now being recognized for laughs.

On July 17, comedian Lewis Black praised the effort and city on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. “It’s the ancestral home of Lucille Ball,” Black noted. “She was born there and for a long time they had a festival for her. I participated in that. Out of that arose the idea of creating a National Comedy Center.”

Within the next week, a full-page article on the center appeared on an entertainment page in The Wall Street Journal. Even more recently, coverage — locally and nationally — ramped up as the dream and work of eight years became a reality.

Jamestown, boosted by the tireless work of a volunteer board headed by Tom Benson and Journey Gunderson, center executive director, has turned a corner.

A large part of making the dream happen comes from the vision of one of its most famous residents, Lucille Ball.

As noted in this column in early May, it was Ball’s stardom that helped Jamestown grow the comedy legacy. Before she died in 1989, she had a vision to boost her hometown.

Benson and Gunderson have seen it through. It is something worth celebrating.

One day before the Comedy Center’s debut, north county Dunkirk was still trying to find its way. That is what happens when past leaders for more than two decades worry about what is happening behind the doors of City Hall rather than what’s on the outside.

Fortunately, for the first time in years, the city has a development department that is energetic and goal oriented. Led by Rebecca Yanus, director of planning and development, there’s been a greater emphasis placed on the waterfront and Lake Shore Drive. A pair of sessions to gauge residents’ thoughts on a Comprehensive Plan were held Tuesday at Iglesia Getsemani, Asambleas De Dios at 115 Central Ave. and the Kosciuszko Club on Nevins Street.

Upon arriving, stakeholders were asked to fill out a survey and offer feedback on the city’s waterfront, parks, downtown, housing and its neighborhoods. At the first session, there was plenty of activity and participants early, but it slowed later in the day.

Judging from the comments being posted at the Central Avenue gathering, it was a little bit more complaining than offering a vision. Nonetheless, it is still input.

Some of the comments included:

¯ A strong showing for single-family housing as well as townhouses and senior housing.

¯ “Swan Street to Second needs more attention to dilapidated housing.”

¯ “Make a commitment to provide recycling containers alongside trash cans.”

¯ “(Make) hospital remain in city.” Followed by, “Yes!” “Absolutely.”

Yanus noted the last comprehensive plan put together by the city was back in the 1970s. It went by the name Belden and has since collected dust.

Suggestions from the two sessions will be added to that plan. Hopefully, it includes something “outside the box” that revitalizes our region.

When you think of Jamestown’s redevelopment, much of it is due to the volunteer and non-profit sector, not government. The ice rink in the heart of downtown is within a block of the comedy center. Both pieces were driven by foundations and grant money. That happened over a 12-year period.

I don’t know if Dunkirk can wait that long.

Revitalize Dunkirk, which may be a large catalyst to the city’s next phase, is one of the few volunteer groups working to revitalize the city. But it doesn’t have the financial clout to make things happen.

We know we have the Athenex project along Route 5 as well as some upscale housing with the Battery Point Villas. Our big question, however, remains: how do we make our waterfront and region a 12-month destination?

That’s the priceless piece to the comprehensive plan.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.