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The Upstate Economy

Work begins soon to bring Watertown landmark back to life

The state of Watertown's historic Woolworth building tells you a lot about the health of the city. And for years, the message hasn't been good. But the vacant eyesore is on track to re-emerge as evidence of the downtown's steady improvement.   

If you put a nose to the building's front window, you can see the story of decline. A big vault door surrounded by moldy clothing shows how a grand bank lobby gave way to a junk shop. And even that business is long gone. Water drips from the ceiling, pooling onto a mess of old merchandise on the floor.

“It's going to lay out well. We have the right amount of money in there to make it an excellent project as far as operating costs from energy efficiency,” says Erich Seber. He's one of the the developers who sees a way to take the Woolworth building back to its prime.“It has good bones. There are some projects that are...they call it, 'lipstick on a pig,' and this is not one of those at all. This is a full-blown renovation project that really will highlight the downtown Public Square area.”

Seber and his partners are buying the building from another developer who failed to get financing for a luxury hotel. If all goes as planned, they'll close this week. A flurry of activity will soon follow. Seber wants to have 50 apartments and first-floor businesses open by early 2015. All the permits are in place to start construction immediately after the sale.

F.W. Woolworth was born in Jefferson County, and this store is one of the earliest in his chain. Seber says his team is proud to bring it back to life.

“The number of people that we meet all over the place, that have some type of tie to Watertown, and specifically to the Woolworth building, is phenomenal,” he says. “It brings smiles to just about everyone.”

The developers plan to outfit a first-floor display area to highlight the building's early history. And they'll spruce up old architectural features, like the mail chute and ornate elevator doors.

Seber says the city was helpful with expediting paperwork and securing financing for the $16 million project, including a state grant. It's also donating a grassy patch of land across the street for a parking garage.