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President's View Mail Class Notes Features

John Hedley in the Market Square Building. Photo by Mark McCarty.

Destination: Troy
As residents and Rensselaer alumni well know, Troy has been on the brink of a “comeback” more than a few times in its 215-year history.

Mike Davis laughs when asked whether Troy is really poised for a comeback this time. “We’ve gone past the ‘poised’ point,” says the owner of Bournebrook Antique Center on River Street. “We have been well-established to the point where we are a destination point for antiques.”

Davis and his wife, Claire, first opened an antiques store on River Street in 2000. In February 2003, they moved into the space formerly occupied by a Thomasville furniture store. Initially, they had only a small portion of the space, but that 2,000 square feet swiftly filled. They took over the remaining 5,000 square feet, and soon the number of antique dealers leasing space had grown from eight to 32. The Davises now have taken over the second floor, where an art gallery displays the work of three artists.

Peter LaRocco was the first business owner to see the potential of the stretch of River Street beginning at the foot of the Congress Street Bridge and heading north. A decade ago, LaRocco opened his Historic Home Supply Corp. at a time when the rest of the street was empty. “We sat here for five years,” he says. “There was zero foot traffic.”

And yet, slowly, the number of antiques stores began to grow, and LaRocco has turned into an optimist. “The retailers that come here are different. They could have located in Saratoga or in Hudson,” he says. “The retailers who are here are highly creative, driven people.”

It is the city’s largely intact Victorian downtown he credits with the turnaround. While many cities destroyed their historic structures in the name of urban renewal, Troy by and large did not. “I think the city of Troy is very lucky that we have an intact downtown,” LaRocco says. “You can walk five or six blocks and still get the feel of a Victorian city. People really do have a vision for this city.”

Gary Kiddney is one of the new retailers working to revitalize the central business district. He opened his Mary Elizabeth gift store in 1999, moving it from Colonie Center mall. He just signed a nine-year lease to remain a tenant in the building at Broadway and Third Streets, now owned by Sandy Horowitz.

“We are our own bosses here. There is a much higher appreciation level here than in the mall,” he says. “I’m hoping. I’m truly, truly hoping. The thing I’ve noticed is everything seems to take a little longer in Troy. Some of the progress has been from the new people. Many of your businesses that have come in have seen a vision.”

Longtime Troy residents and business owners, he says, have a tendency to see the city for what it has been. They cannot seem to get over that Troy is no longer the bustling town where shoppers packed the streets to go to one of five different department stores. “They look to the past instead of the present,” Kiddney says. “The other people look at the buildings and see what they were. I think that’s human nature to a very large degree.”

Clint Ballinger, CEO of Evident Technologies, thinks that mindset is changing. “I think Troy is seeing a real growth spurt right now,” he says. “The entire area has become more entrepreneurial, and my definition of entrepreneurial is not allowing themselves to become victimized. It’s more fault-tolerant, this new mindset.”

Photos by Mark McCarty

Ballinger moved 20 employees of his nanotechnology firm into the Rice Building in 2002. He also still has a presence in Rensselaer’s business incubator in Watervliet. “There is a general confidence, and it’s very hard to pin it on anything or anyone, a mindset that we can do things that Silicon Valley can do,” Ballinger says. “I just feel a lot more positive now than I did two years ago.”

P. Thomas Carroll, former professor of history at Rensselaer and executive director of the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway, works to preserve the city’s industrial heritage. He often refers to the city as “the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.”

When he first moved to Troy in 1980 to become a professor at Rensselaer, he says, “I was just stunned by how significant this area is. To this day, I am still learning something new about it.” He recalls learning that the iron cables for New York City’s George Washington Bridge were manufactured by Republic Steel a short distance away from his office in a building once part of the Burden Iron Works complex.

“It really is a fascinating city because it certainly was one of the leading prototypes, if not the leading prototype, of the modern American industrial city,” he says. “There clearly was here in the greater Troy area a concerted, self-conscious effort to use the cutting-edge technology of the day.”

A rival to Pittsburgh as a leading industrial city, Troy’s factories were powered by the water that flows by in the Hudson River. When other means of generating electricity became common, Troy’s path to becoming a major metropolis was blocked.

“We were ideally suited when water was the primary source of power,” Carroll says. “The bad thing is we have been bypassed for 125 years. The good thing is it kept some important historical features from being obliterated.”

Those historic features are now attracting developers and entrepreneurs who recognize their value, Ballinger says.

“Two years ago, they would always ask me, ‘When are you leaving?’” he says. “Now I have people calling and asking ‘How do I get involved?’ Other folks from the outside are coming to recognize this place.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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