Home / Special Report / Hilton tries to balance growth
with desire for small-town feel

Hilton tries to balance growth
with desire for small-town feel

Best known in the region for its apple festival, Hilton recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. This village of 5,250 in the western Monroe County town of Parma began its second 100 years with four projects aimed at revitalizing its core business district. Officials also look to rein in the explosion of residential growth seen in the past two decades.
“The business climate is stable (but) not growing. With the highways and intersections in the county going toward the malls, they have taken the old and the young away from the local shopping,” says Larry Gursslin, the village’s mayor for the last 14 years.
Similar to what has happened in many other area villages, the malls and suburban shopping centers have stripped vital retail businesses from Hilton.
“We no longer have a shoe store. We no longer have a movie theater. We do not have a growing commercial (sector) in the village,” he says. “Basically, we provide some basic staples. It is supply and demand. A lot of the local stores can’t compete with the Home Depots.”
The current array of stores includes the village’s second-largest employer–and business anchor–the Hilton Big M Supermarket (90 employees). The village also features one of the region’s only remaining Ben Franklin stores and a fitness center carrying the name of local resident and two-time Olympic speed- skating champion, Cathy Turner.
Richard Furnal, owner of the Hilton Big M Supermarket, says that while his store thus far has weathered tough business conditions, things could be better.
“For our store, the local business climate is great. We are the only supermarket in the village. The community is really good in supporting us,” he says. Still, “overall, I think business over the last five to six years has been flat. All the layoffs and downsizing throughout the Rochester area have hurt.”

Breaking new ground
Many residents, businesspeople and village officials express excitement about several projects that promise to pump new life into the village.
The Hojack Project, estimated at more than $750,000, will turn an abandoned railroad bed into a new commercial street. Officials expect to pave the road-way next year. Local people call it the “new Main Street.”
One developer already seeks approval to build an office and retail building there.
“Some people say we are building a new Main Street. What we are doing is building new frontage for development,” Gursslin says.
“As opposed to jumping out of the village into shopping malls or plazas in the town, we are trying to keep new retail development in the heart of the village,” the mayor adds.
The second major project involves the $440,000 purchase of six properties to keep the post office in the heart of the village. Village officials bought six houses on South Avenue with plans to demolish them for a new post office, slated to move to the new site around Dec. 1.
“Unlike all the other municipalities in Monroe County, we knew where we wanted our post office. We did not want it moving outside the village,” Gursslin says. The village worked with a private developer and the U.S. Postal Service to develop a 30-year lease that will turn the building over to the village at the end of the lease term.
Local businesspeople and residents supported the plan, despite some reservations over spending village tax dollars to buy and lease property. They say the post office provides convenience to the residents and enhances the local business district.
Similarly, business and village leaders hope a residential project–expected to begin within the next year–will boost the local economy. The village annexed 68 acres of land, which will bring more than 200 units of senior-citizen housing.
“We worked to actively promote senior-citizen housing,” Gursslin says. “By having senior-citizen housing it doesn’t affect the (school) tax rate and they tend to be local shoppers.”
Developer Thomas Cottrone will construct the Unionville Station (named after one of the village’s earliest names) near South Avenue. The project will include condominiums for seniors and some on-site retail space.
Another project includes rezoning 15 acres of land to light industrial along the western border of the village. The village hopes to annex the farmland heading into the village and construct a roadway to open the landlocked parcel. It is part of a five-year project to broaden the tax base.

Historical perspective
The village remains surrounded by undeveloped farmland. That lush land first attracted soldiers who traveled across the region in the early 1800s. Those original settlers came from New England and considered the area “the Western Frontier,” says Mary Townsend, village historian.
The village celebrates two anniversaries. In May, the village marked the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as Hilton. Historically, however, the village dates back 11 years earlier with the founding of the village of North Parma.
Townsend says Hilton had other names: Salmon Creek (for the waterway that bubbles through the village), Unionville and Tyler’s Corners. The village got its current name from a Baptist minister, the Rev. Charles Hilton.
Today’s village contains more buildings of newer vintage than one expects in a century-old Western New York village. A 1965 fire destroyed much of the old Main Street.
“The Main Street I walked down growing up doesn’t exist anymore,” laments Townsend.
Almost all the old frame-style buildings succumbed to that blaze. The damage in 1965 dollars topped $2 million.
Like many communities that sprung up near the Lake Ontario fruit belt, the Hilton area saw an apple industry flourish in the 1800s and early 1900s. Many orchards remain in the town of Parma.
Hilton’s fame as a commercial canning center, however, has passed. One of those old canneries now houses the Antique Craft & Co-op in the Canning Street Square.
The apple tradition lives on, however, with the annual Hilton Apple Festival. The event (Oct. 5-6 this year) attracts thousands of people from throughout Western New York to enjoy the food, crafts, entertainment and, of course, the apples. The event costs $25,000 to stage. Any money it generates over that amount is donated to the community.
Gursslin calls the festival a true community asset. “A lot of people who move to Hilton say they first came here for the Apple Fest and liked what they saw. It promotes the community. It promotes the apple growers. It’s an event that the community can be proud of.”
The mayor says large family-oriented community events are part of what makes Hilton special. He calls the annual firemen’s carnival the “largest in Western New York.”

Managing growth
According to Village Administrator James Ingham, the largest local employer is the Hilton Central School District, which employs 564 full-time and 31 part-time employees. Many village residents work at Eastman Kodak Co., which ranks as the leading non-Hilton employer.
One concern the community faces comes from the east–suburban Monroe County. Residents worry that the village will be swallowed by the suburban sprawl of neighboring Greece.
“I’m afraid you won’t be able to know when you enter Hilton,” Furnal says. “It will just combine with Greece.”
He acknowledges that he also worries about the effect that such growth–and its accompanying supermarkets and superstores–will have on his store. “It’s a big concern for us,” he says.
The village population rose from 1,334 in 1960 to 2,440 in 1970. It nearly doubled again by 1980 with 4,128. With the population topping 5,000 in 1990, however, village officials have decided to hit the brakes.
“We need to call time out. People like that small community,” the mayor says. “We like the size the way it is.”
A village survey commissioned in 1989 found that “maintaining the rural community atmosphere” was of utmost importance to residents.
Gursslin says almost all the existing residential lots are developed and the village board opposes any new residential development. Officials can control it because almost any major development would need village utilities and require annexation, he says. The board does not plan to annex any additional land for residential development.
The growth in Hilton, Parma and Greece also affects the number of students attending Hilton schools. Barbara Carder, district spokeswoman, says the district–now at 4,400 students–has grown some 3 percent a year during the past eight years. That growth has created a need for additional space.
Local residents look at their local school district as a source of pride. The district boasts that 75 percent of graduating seniors plan to attend college and that its 1.7 percent dropout rate ranks as one of the lowest in Monroe County.
The area’s support for the schools will face a test on Oct. 9 when residents vote on a $9.99 million capital project/technology bond proposition. It would provide new classrooms and technology for Hilton’s students.
More than $3 million of the bond would pay for a districtwide data/voice network and new technology that aims at providing computer and telecommunications capability for all Hilton students. The plan calls for linking all buildings in the district via the Internet, e-mail, cable TV, video and telephone. It would also install desktop computers and train all staff in the technology. A second proposal would establish a reserve fund to pay for a five-year replacement cycle for computers.
District officials say the technology is necessary to help Hilton and its students compete in today’s world.
“The technology we are proposing will make information, research and knowledge more accessible,” says Chris Bogden, superintendent of schools.
The capital project calls for two building additions that would add classrooms and for major renovations to upgrade facilities throughout the district.
The district already has started using technology to inform area residents. On Aug. 22, it launched a site on the World Wide Web (http://www.hilton.k12.ny.us). The site initially will focus on the technology vote, but likely will expand to a full district site, Carder says.

Keeping some of the old
A more traditional information source and meeting site is the Village Community Center on Henry Street. The village bought it in 1980 and converted the old high school into two floors of community space. The site includes space for senior-citizen events like bingo, dinners and Scrabble; baby-sitting; parks and recreation programs; and a gymnasium.
The building overlooks Centennial Park, where an octagonal gazebo, decorated with cascades of flowers and hanging baskets, serves as the site for community band concerts and weddings.
Townsend says that Hilton people make the community different from others.
“If there is a need, they are there. We take care of each other. We just plain help each other,” she says. “It’s old-fashioned.”
History is important as well, she adds: “There is a lot of feeling about this village. We love Hilton.”
The mayor adds that Hilton, unlike some larger towns, has managed to maintain its own identity.
“I think it’s one of the strengths we have as a village. It reminds me of a small Norman Rockwell community,” he says. “It does not take long for someone to move into the village and get involved. It doesn’t take long to become an asset.”
(Mike Dickinson is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)

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